“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Matthew 13:12.
The recent Thinkbroadband article on progress with the roll-out of Fibre to the Cabinet in Suffolk illustrates how current BDUK policy, focussed on a deficit funding model to subsidiser the extension of BT’s fibre to the cabinet service, is helping increase the digital divide. BT does indeed appear to be delivering significantly better connectivity, faster than it has contracted. But, except in Cornwall, where the contract includes wireless and satellite to the outlying areas, the result is to significantly increase political pressure to make better use of the Rural Community Broadband Fund as a whole, not just the £10 million that has been allocated for “innovation projects” , so as to serve the digitally excluded.
Interestingly the problem may also be at the European Level, giving 12 mb satellite links to those who currently have little or no connectivity does not count against pan-European targets for 30 mb services. However, a time-limited voucher scheme, akin to that for Wales, for those in the current “White Areas” (not expected to be eerved under current BDUK contracts) might avoid the need to hand back the unspent balance of the £20 million in March 2014. The impending European elections and the threat of UKIP landslide make EU approval, if needed, almost a formality. In fact an extension of the “innovation” programme to use ALL the unspent balance may be all that is needed. Of course BT should be able to bid for the vouchers, but only for services that are available to all comers. If that were to result in a sudden extension of the areas covered by its existing contracts and in the wireless and satelllite connections being provided in Cornwall being made available nationwide, that might help narrow the currently growing digital divide at a stroke. I would, however, also hope to see a sudden rush of funding approvals for those fibre-based community broadband projects currently “stuck in the treacle”.
I should perhaps add that one of the reasons for this Christmas message is that on Boxing Day I expect to receive an earful from relatives trying to access government services (e.g. DEFRA, Charities Commission, Disability Living assistance etc.), let alone shop, on-line. “Digital by default” is still a hollow joke for those living outside the leafy suburbs as it is for small firms in Farringdon Within (alias Smithfield) or on the wrong side the road in Shoreditch.
Given the expected bloodbath in the 2014 European and Council elections I expect to see political minds concentrated in the New Year on ensuring rapid follow through on what has been announced in the past month. Last Monday I chaired a Conservative Technology Round Table on Communications Policy. After the Christmas break, I will be digesting what was said – including the need to base policy on what we can see happening now and on what we want to see happen in the future, not on ten year old mythology and business models (costs, technologies, demand etc.). Perhaps we can then make serious progress towards globally competitive but also socially inclusive and fully inter-operable communications networks that are fit for the 21st century.
In the mean time I suggest you read the whole of Matthew 13 and have an off-line Christmas.