The timetable for broadband in all UK homes by 2012 has been put back by Tory culture secretary Jeremy Hunt- who says Labour’s plan was impractical.
The battle to close Britain’s broadband divide suffered a blow when the government pushed back the UK’s target for universal access to high-speed networks by three years.
Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, said that it was not practical to meet the previous government’s target of universal broadband coverage by 2012 – a commitment he had previously dismissed as “paltry”. Instead, Hunt said it would take until 2015 before every home in Britain had at least a 2Mbps (megabits per second) connection.
“I have looked at the provision the government had made to achieve this by 2012. And I’m afraid that I am not convinced that there is sufficient funding in place,” Hunt told a gathering of telecoms operators. “So, while we will keep working towards that date, we have set ourselves a more realistic target of achieving universal 2Mbps access within the lifetime of this parliament.”
At present, 99% of homes can get some form of broadband connection but about 11% – or 2 million homes – cannot get speeds as high as 2Mbps. This limits their ability to use bandwidth-intensive services such as video streaming and television-on-demand. About 160,000 rural and remote households still cannot get any form of broadband, more than 10 years after the first services were launched.
Labour had assigned about £250m from the digital switchover fund to pay for its universal service obligation. It had also planned to introduce a 50p-per-line levy on all phone lines to fund the rollout of superfast networks in rural areas, but this tax was shelved before the election and then abolished by George Osborne in June’s budget.
Hunt’s message to the telecoms industry was that it was essential that the next generation of broadband networks, which offers speeds upwards of 40Mbps, were made available to “virtually every household”. He wants Britain to have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015.
However, the government also expects the communications sector to take the lead, even though companies such as BT have warned that it is not economically viable to extend superfast broadband across the whole country.
Hunt, though, said that innovative solutions were the answer. “I don’t want to hear about how to roll out a fibre-optic pipe to every home in Wales,” said Hunt, who suggested the water mains and sewers could be opened up if this would cut the cost of building new networks.
He also conceded that commercial operators could not solve the problem alone. “There is market failure now so I believe there will be market failure in the future, but I would be incredibly pleased to learn that this is not the case.”
BT has committed to spending £2.5bn to extend its new fibre network to two-thirds of homes, but has warned that it cannot go further without government support.
The government also said that it would start three trials of super-fast broadband networks in rural areas this autumn. These pilots should identify ways of bringing broadband to areas where it is not economically viable – through partnerships, funding support, or by relaxing legislation.