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Rhetoric, reality and the quest for better broadband
Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor 7:15AM BST 30 Sep 2010
The challenge of building a broadband network fit for the future is one that affects political parties of all hues.
At the Labour Party conference this week, the talk was not exclusively of the leadership battle. Around that almost all-consuming topic, there was a little discussion of policy, too, and when it comes to the politics of technology, Labour's former minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms, was keen to suggest that Coalition broadband policies were not living up to Conservative pre-election promises.
The Conservatives, said Mr Timms, had 'given the impression that electing them would unleash a tidal wave of investment' and that a Tory government would lead Britain into a promised broadband utopia of which the South Koreans would be envious.
Even the former minister himself, however, conceded that if you look at the words used by Conservatives before the election, the Party had not reneged on anything. He observed that they had delayed a Labour commitment to universal broadband at two megabits per second from 2012 to 2015, despite themselves condemning the original pledge as 'woefully unambitious'. The Conservatives have managed to push back such an ambition while still promising Britain 'the best broadband network in Europe by 2015', and of course such a hope can only be tested somewhat nearer the deadline.
Beyond Mr Timms's criticism of a 'troubling disconnect' between Tory rhetoric and reality, however, there was a deeper discussion, and fundamentally it was about where businesses can be persuaded to invest in expensive infrastructure. Mr Timms, for instance, played up the importance of mobile broadband as a technology that can be used to fill in the gaps where fibre cables cannot be laid.
So the broadband debate has some consensus: the real issue is how much businesses such as BT and the big mobile networks can be squeezed into investing. Labour's position, for now at least, is simply to observe that additional money promised by the Conservatives from the BBC Licence Fee will not be available to make up the difference until 2013; Mr Timms said that, while he 'didn't want to sound like a grumpy old has-been', without 'the scale of investment' Labour had promised, coming in part from a telephone tax, he feared 'particularly for small businesses in rural areas'.
According to Peter Cochrane, the respected consultant and former chief technologist for BT, a two megabits per second 'universal' commitment from any government by 2012 was always going to depend on 'fiddling the figures'. But he also cautions that, in fact, providing broadband on a wide scale at any decent speed is simply not viable without investment at a level that neither government nor business will currently countenance. 'We could,' he adds, 'have organised a fantastic broadband network by 1995 by laying more fibre when we renewed the network, and BT would have made a fortune selling off the redundant copper'.
Now, the challenge is in planning a broadband network fit for the future, and that means some serious investment; as Mr Timms says, that 'tidal wave' of ready money has yet to break on British shores. Equally, and expectedly in the recent absence of a leader, Labour has yet to present a credible, detailed plan.
But it's worth remembering that when Gordon Brown sold off the mobile phone 3G spectrum it netted the Government £22 billion - that was twice, according to Cochrane, what it would have cost then (in 2000) to lay fibre cabling to every home. As the Coalition prepares for its own, new spectrum auction, it will do well not to allow a repetition of the mistakes of the past.