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UK government’s broadband strategy attacked by Lords’ report

The UK government is taking the wrong approach to delivering broadband across the UK, according to a report from a House of Lords committee. The report from the Select Committee on Communications claims that the government’s current approach favours speed over coverage, and runs the risk that large parts of the UK will be left with inadequate connectivity.

“The delivery of certain speeds should not be the guiding principle; what is important is the long term assurance that as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK,” said the report.

The focus should instead be on eliminating the digital divide as otherwise 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”.

The report states that broadband connections should be treated as a strategic asset in the same category as rail lines or electricity. “Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy,” said committee chairman Lord Inglewood in the report.

Rob Gallagher, head of Broadband & TV Research at Informa Telecoms & Media echoed the report’s conclusions stating that, “ensuring equality of access seems a much more laudable goal than competing in meaningless global contest based on Mbps alone. While average internet usage in the UK is above those of a number of its peers, you can be sure it’s much lower for those poorly served by broadband today. The UK government’s current policy risks translating and even widening this gap to a next-generation world.”

As an alternative approach the Lords’ report recommends the creation of ‘fibre-optic hubs’ all round the country. These hubs, “would provide a platform for local communities and businesses to access the broadband provision they want in the short term, and to upgrade that access flexibly as needs evolve over time”.

The hubs would contain dark fibre, which would then be rented out by local ISPs to provide connectivity where there is demand.

The Lords also cast doubt on the wisdom of providing up to £530m to help ISPs link up 90 per cent of the UK suggesting that these funds would only assist UK incumbent BT.

BT was critical of the report’s conclusions and said in a statement that, “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. 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.”

Earlier this year the UK government said that 10 cities would become “super-connected” backed by an investment of £100m. An additional £50m would fund a second wave of 10 smaller cities.

To address the issue of poor connectivity some UK residents have taken matters into their own hands, with a group called Broadband for the Rural North, (B4RN) digging its own connections to the nearest fibre cabinets.

Despite criticising the government for creating a poor national broadband network the report suggested that the UK regular Ofcom consider a proposal to move all TV services in the country to be delivered via the internet, thus freeing up more spectrum for use by mobile broadband.

Matthew Howett, regulation practice leader at analyst house Ovum criticised the government and the report for failing to identify the important of the upcoming mobile auction as critical to the delivery of broadband targets. “”Meanwhile, there are certainly things that the government could and should be doing that it’s not currently… With well-targeted intervention the government could make the difference it wants to. At the moment it seems unsure just exactly what it should be doing.”

The Broadband World Forum event takes place in Amsterdam, 16-18 October 2012

Written by Benny Har-Even who is a senior content producer for