It is becoming
increasingly common - and frustrating - for MPs and ministers of state to turn
up to give keynote speeches managing to say a huge number of words without
saying anything at all.
Another one of these occurrences
happened today with culture secretary Jeremy Hunt taking to the stage at the
Google Campus in Tech City. The premise was to update the gathered industry
leaders, council members and a handful of journalists on his government's
progress with broadband roll-out and if they were still on track for the UK to
win its crown as the best broadband nation in Europe by 2015.
Before I go into a tirade
with the words of James Noughtie firmly in my head, I will say this: Jeremy
Hunt stayed for questions. It may not sound much of a compliment, but journalists
and interested parties are often lured to events with the promise of time with
a senior cabinet minister, only for them to leg it at the first opportunity without
answering a single query.
Hunt, however, sat on
stage for a good 40 minutes after his speech taking questions from the audience
and then stayed on for a further half an hour to be hounded by journalists
wanting to take a story home. Thank you minister, it was much appreciated.
But, back to the
See, the reason for us
all to gather, or what the department for media, culture and sport wanted us to
take away, was the UK wasn't just going to have the best broadband in the Wild
West, but also the fastest.
"When the Lords
Committee criticised me for being preoccupied with speed, I plead guilty," said
Hunt "Today's superfast is tomorrow's superslow... we must never fall into the
trap of saying any speed is enough..."and many more statements flew out of the
minister's mouth from his carefully crafted speech.
I assume the desired
effect was to make the room swoon at the minister dedicated to getting
superfast broadband for all. He wants us to have speed and he wants us to have
it now! Cue cheering and celebrating!
However, most of the
room sat politely until he finished and then started asking, not about speed,
but about what they considered more important aspects of broadband...
What about the quality
of service? What about the different technologies to get these fast
connections? What about getting these connections to everyone as fast as
Members of the
audience told Hunt they didn't want 1Gbps broadband; they just wanted access to
the internet; a connection strong enough to do their jobs or contact their
loved ones, which many were still without.
Others questioned why £150m investment is being
made into providing superfast broadband in cities. Why are the likes of BT and
Virgin Media not doing this already without government aid? And why is the
focus not on giving city dwellers reliable connections for the speeds they are
already led to believe they can achieve for the money they pay?
The latest figures
from Ofcom, used by Hunt to boast about our average speeds of 9Mbps in the UK,
showed just 8% of residential broadband users were going for superfast
broadband. The vast majority (68%) were happy with their up to 10Mbps
connections. No one is begging for ludicrously fast speeds yet or, at least,
very few are.
Hunt's point that it
is better to over-prepare for the future - remember his today's superfast line?
- is a valid one, but getting the basic infrastructure installed is the toughest
part. Running faster connections over it is relatively simple afterwards and,
although it should be included in the future planning process, speed should be
secondary to getting not 90% but as close to 100% as possible of the UK within
reach of an internet connection.
Many criticised the
previous government's 2Mbps goal for everyone by 2012 as not being enough. But,
if this had been achieved in the time frame, ramping connections up to the
speeds Hunt seems obsessed with and making the UK the fastest in Europe - well,
only compared to what he refers to as the 'big' European countries of France,
Germany and Spain - would seem a lot more realistic.
We have a way to go
before we compete with the Nordics, South Korea or even the burgeoning markets
in Eastern Europe, but Hunt needs to stop acting like a boy racer and think of
the tortoise and the hare. I know I would prefer a slightly slower but reliable
connection for everyone in the country than a choice few getting mega fast
speeds whilst others sit without.