Lords Committee Slates Government Broadband Strategy

A Lords Committee lambasts the government’s broadband strategy, claiming it has too much emphasis on speed

A House of Lords committee has slammed the government’s strategy to roll out superfast broadband in the UK, saying it was preoccupied with speed and not about ensuring decent access for those trapped in the broadband slow lane.

The report came from the Lords Communications Committee, which has been gathering views from industry experts during the course of this year about the state of the broadband infrastructure in the UK and the government’s plans to improve it.

It also claimed the government was “in thrall to the commercial interests of private enterprise”, complaining that the Broadband Development UK (BDUK) process, which is supposed to be taking superfast connections to rural areas, was not competitive enough. All BDUK projects announced thus far bar one have been put on hold as the European Commission decides whether or not they are competitive enough.

Flawed strategy

The committee published industry responses in April, many of which were damning and highly critical of the current state of the broadband network in the UK. Today, in the official report, the committee welcomed the government’s focus on broadband, but said its strategy was misguided.

“There is a very real risk that some people and businesses are being left behind, that inadequate access to the internet and all its benefits is actually afflicting their daily lives, prohibiting them from harvesting the fruits of the information revolution,” the report read.

“It is our contention … that the government have proceeded from a flawed prospectus, that the progress being made may prove illusory.

“There has been an insufficient focus on properly thinking through questions of first principle, and an absence of an all encompassing vision of pervasive broadband connectivity as a key component of national infrastructure.”

The report said the national broadband network must be treated as a strategic asset, like roads and railways, and that the delivery of speed should not be the overriding aim, but focus should go on ensuring that decent universal access is not forgotten.

“The delivery of certain speeds should not be the guiding principle…the spectre of a widening digital divide is a profound source of concern which requires the government to address its origin with greater vigour than we believe is currently the case,” said the report.

It urged the government focus on building a future-proof network, which must be “driven out as close as possible to the eventual user.” At the moment, most of the fibre deployment in the UK is FTTC (Fibre-to-the-Cabinet) and not FTTP (Fibre-to-the-Premises).

BT response

BT was quick to respond to the report, stressing that its fibre deployment to two thirds of the UK is providing an open network.

“This report calls for fibre broadband to be brought within reach of as many communities as possible via an open network. That is already happening with BT making fibre available to a further four million homes alone whilst the committee has deliberated,” said BT in a statement.

“This new network – which already passes 11 million homes and which will soon pass millions more – is open to all ISPs on an equal basis and more than 50 ISPs are using it.

“Companies can also lay their own fibre using BT’s ducts and poles should they wish so there is plenty of room for competition. This level of open access is unparalleled in Europe and so the UK is well placed to have one of the best super-fast networks in the continent by 2015.”

The government has promised the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015, and hopes to achieve download speeds of 24Mbps for 90 percent of the UK’s 25 million households by that date.

European leader?

Ed Vaizey, minister for communications, also defended the government’s broadband plans in a radio interview with the BBC’s Today programme, claiming that other European countries look to the UK as a leader on broadband.

He said the government was “very happy” it would meet the target of 90 percent of households with a fast broadband connection by 2015.

When questioned over the fact that the UK is lagging in the broadband speed stakes compared to other European nations, Vaizey insisted that the UK benefits from its competitive market.

“The average speed in the UK is 7.5Mbps,” said Vaizey. “We don’t just want fast speeds, we want a competitive marketplace, and we do have the most competitive marketplace in Europe. I think the rest of Europe looks to us as leaders in this.”

Vaizey went on to point to the low price of broadband connectivity in the UK. “That includes price – there is no point in having superfast broadband coming past your door if you cannot afford it,” said Vaizey. “We do have low prices for broadband at the moment.”

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