The Government has outlined a new strategy designed to give fresh impetus to the ailing roll-out of high-speed Internet access across the UK.
Speaking at the launch, Patricia Hewitt, minister for small business and e-commerce, said the Government would be investing £30m over the next three years to accelerate the involvement of both the public and private sectors in the national broadband roll-out, particularly in more remote areas of the country.
The initiative, set out in the new strategy report, UK Online: The Broadband Future, is designed to enable the devolved administrations and regional development agencies (RDAs) to develop innovative ways to meet local requirements for broadband networks.
Under the plans, broadband suppliers would approach the RDA, which would then put in a bid for funding. "It is a challenge fund - we are not specifying how it should be spent. This gives the RDAs a chance to put in place procurement projects across the region," Hewitt explained.
According to the Government, telecoms suppliers have been reluctant to invest in broadband infrastructure because of the fragmented nature of public sector procurement. Although many sectors are already involved in procurement, it has all been conducted separately and on a piecemeal scale, which has made it difficult for the private sector to assess the level of demand for broadband access.
"The single largest problem for private sector suppliers is being asked for small amounts of broadband - they cannot see the scale of demand and where it is coming from," Hewitt said.
A more co-ordinated approach to public sector bandwidth procurement would allow the market to operate more effectively, benefiting both the private and public sector.
Hewitt admitted that the UK was behind in developing a broadband infrastructure, widely thought to be essential for successful e-business in the UK.
"We started the process several years after the US and Germany because the last administration was not interested in unbundling the local loop. Our goal is to ensure that by 2005 we have the most extensive and competitive broadband infrastructure in the G7 countries. It is a stretching goal but a feasible one," she said.