Opinion: 50p tax goes – what's next for UK's lagging broadband?

In the wash-up leading up to the election, the government scrapped plans for the 50p levy on all phone lines. This tax was designed to help fund next-generation...

In the wash-up leading up to the election, the government scrapped plans for the 50p levy on all phone lines. This tax was designed to help fund next-generation broadband in the "final third", those areas of the UK least likely to see traditional commercial investment in telecommunications, writes Adrian Wooster of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association.

I have struggled with this for a long time, in two minds about whether it was the right approach - top-down centralist model versus more local models. One thing is clear though - the broadband issue has not gone away.

In a recent industry forum it was suggested from experiences gained across Europe that the UK is at least five years behind mainland Europe in investing in next-generation broadband. This hasn't changed in a week. And the cause of the Final Third First campaign hasn't weakened overnight. There is still a very real and urgent need to see investment in telecommunications infrastructure in the UK - and not just in the most difficult to reach areas.

I don't accept that it is realistic to simply wait for the market to wake up to the opportunity - the Caio Review laid out a long list of reasons why this wasn't likely to happen organically in the UK, and few of these barriers have been overcome since its publication.

While there are clear differences in the approaches of the main political parties leading up to the election, the need for strategic leadership (above public cash) is more important than ever if the UK is to begin to catch up with the European economies we compete with.

If public money isn't going to be used to see investment unlocked (which I have no issue with) what is going to replace it?

In much of Europe, progress can be put down to strategic leadership. Where public money has been used, its typically invested based on a solid business case - improvement in public services, doing more for less.

This was very much the message Peter Gershon championed when he studied the efficiency of public spending. Now he is as much a Conservative asset as the existing government's perhaps we may see some movement here from both parties, but it would be good to know what we might expect - broadband investment is a long, slow process which needs stability and vision over hype and vagueness.

In the build up to the 2010 General Election there is a much needed opportunity to demonstrate the kind of strategic leadership which has seen investment unlocked in many parts of Europe, that a future government understands what is needed to get the UK back on the road to technology leadership - a path we lost some time ago.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservatives have respected senior people who understand this space - Stephen Timms was writing about broadband before most of us had heard of it, and the team of Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt together understand the impact not investing will have on the creative industries and our rural economies. (Vaizey and a newly elected David Cameron helped community broadband efforts in Oxfordshire the first time around).

The scrapping of the 50p levy isn't worrying in itself - the lack of a clear vision for the technological future of Britain is. Its not often we get politicians who understand this sector, so please let them tell us what they think that future looks like.

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