Lords Select Committee slams government broadband plans

A report from the Communications Committee claims the government is ‘preoccupied with speed’ rather than focusing on the roll-out of broadband to more areas

The House of Lords Communications Committee today slammed the government’s broadband strategy, claiming the UK “can and must do better” when rolling out internet infrastructure.

The committee has been gathering evidence since February this year to look into the plans set out by Jeremy Hunt in 2010 to give Britain “the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015.”

In its report published today entitled ‘Broadband for all – an alternative vision,’ it said the government had been “preoccupied with speed” rather than ensuring a strong national network was built to reach as many homes as possible in the UK, and this decision had a “detrimental effect on policy-making and the long term national interest.”

“The Government's strategy lacks just that – strategy,” said Lord Inglewood, chairman of the committee. “The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government's policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come."

The committee has called for a new approach, taking the focus away from boosting the speeds of those already with internet connections or adding in the final part of the connections to homes, and putting it onto creating a network of fibre hubs within reach of communities.   

At present, the government has set aside £530m to go towards roll-out of broadband in partnership with local councils and either BT or Fujitsu as the technology provider – although BT has been the only one to win any contracts thus far – and aims to reach 90% of the country by 2015.

Instead, the committee thinks hubs would enable local communities to have their own local dark fibre networks which in turn could connect to national fibre networks at a set price and with standardised technology, enabling smaller ISPs to play their part, more areas to connect to the internet at a faster rate and BT to have less of a stronghold on the roll-out.

“Our vision is of a robust and resilient national network linked primarily by optical connectivity, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs into or within reach of every community,” read the report.

“This would allow diverse providers, large and small, to contribute to the reach and resilience of our national connectivity and allow all individuals to benefit from whichever services, including public ones, will run over it in time to come.”

The report also calls for the hubs to be equipped with the backhaul infrastructure for wireless networks, giving another option for local businesses and homes to connect to the internet.

“We recommend that the Government consider our vision for the UK's broadband infrastructure as set out in this report,” concluded the report.

“As a first step, we recommend that the Government undertake to produce detailed costings of our proposal, not least because our proposal removes the final mile—the most expensive per capita component of the network— from the costs requiring public subsidy.”

The report has gained support from a number of campaign groups, but the lack of detail when it comes to cost and time-scale of such a network has led to many of them keeping their praise off-the-record for now.

Matthew Howett, lead analyst at Ovum, said: “For a long time it was joked that the UK was on a 'low-fibre diet' and that the government's broadband policy represented a 'poverty of ambition for a digital Britain.’”

“Today the report of the Lords Select Committee on Communications adds to these cries and calls on the government to set out an even bolder vision for broadband policy than is currently being followed. However, with nearly 50 recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met, it's likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream.”

The government now has two months to respond to the House of Lords Committee on its recommendations, but the department for culture, media and sport released a short statement today to justify its position.

“The government considered a number of models for delivering superfast and universal broadband,” said a spokesman from the department.

“We believe that working with the private sector and local authorities is the best and most cost effective approach and we remain on track to deliver our broadband commitments.”

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