Reach is more important than speed in connected broadband-Britain claim Peers

The government’s broadband strategy has received criticism from some quarters; however, the latest sniping remarks from a House of Lords committee will hurt more than most. The communications committee stated in its latest report that the focus of the government’s strategy is flawed and that unless prompt action is taken it risks leaving many rural communities and businesses isolated. The committee warned that the overwhelming focus on speed over reach of service will damage communities in the longer term. However, it also accepted that the broadband issue in general needed to be addressed urgently, as the UK could miss out if high speed internet services were not treated as a key national asset.

The issue of addressing this digital divide is one which has troubled the government over the last few years. Digital minister, Ed Vaizey, has insisted that a considerable amount of money has already been spent on extending broadband to rural areas, and is still insistent that the UK will have the best high speed broadband service in Europe by 2015. However, the committee remains far from convinced, and insists that the current strategy poses “a very real risk that some people and businesses will be left behind, and that inadequate access to the internet and all its benefits is actually afflicting their daily lives”.

“The delivery of certain speeds should not be the guiding principle; what is important is the long term assurance that as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK.”

The report calls for broadband to be treated as part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure, and for the creation of a network of fibre-optic hubs, which would get fast broadband to local communities and businesses when they wanted it. Conservative peer Lord Inglewood, who chairs the House of Lords Communications Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme a broadband strategy would focus on speed in an “ideal world”.

However, he added, this is not an ideal world at the moment: money is tight for some and different people have different requirement for speeds: “what we need is a system that enables people to get what they want and pay accordingly.”

Liv Garfield, chief executive of BT Open Reach, was however surprised that the report was so critical. She also told the Today programme:

“If you look at it across Europe, we have fantastic coverage, we are the most competitive market and we’re seen by many other countries as being the people to follow in terms of broadband access.”

In this year’s Budget, the government confirmed that 10 cities would become “super-connected” as part of a £100 million investment announced in the Autumn Statement 2011. It also stated that it would provide an additional £50 million to fund a second wave of 10 smaller cities. Ministers are confident that the investments in cities will provide ultrafast broadband coverage to 1.7 million households and high-speed wireless broadband for three million residents by 2015.

Mr Vaizey told the BBC that the whole country should have access to a good standard of broadband by 2015:

“There is a very competitive marketplace in terms of laying fibre to people’s homes in two thirds of the country,”

he said, however “government intervention is needed for the rest of the country. There is absolutely no point having superfast broadband coming past your door if you cannot afford it. We do want competition on price and we have very low prices.”

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