Jeremy Hunt's need for speed misses the point

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 tirade…

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 possible?

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. 

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