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UK to rely on mobile operators for universal broadband

2Mbit/s with 'a bit of wiggle room'

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Digital Britain The government will turn to mobile operators to deliver the commitment made by Lord Carter today that every home in the UK should be able to get 2Mbit/s broadband by 2012.

The interim Digital Britain report, published today, is short on specifics of how a new Universal Service Commitment (USC) will function, and defers decisions on the details. "We will develop detailed proposals for the design and operation of a new, more broadly-based scheme to fund the Universal Service Commitment for the fully digital age – including who should contribute and its governance and accountability structures," it says.

It is clear that nobody going to be digging up roads to lay fibre in the Highlands however, and that the USC will be "delivered by a mixture of fixed and mobile, wired and wireless means".

The final Digital Britain report is due out in summer, when detailed proposals for the USC will be published. The current USC guaranteeing a voice service to the whole country, which applies only to BT and K-Com, will be dropped once the new one is in place.

In a briefing to jounalists and industry this morning, Carter said: "At the moment... a guaranteed 2Mbit/s wireless broadband connection is pretty tricky to do. But by 2012 we might be in a different place so we're setting an ambition, that's all we're saying. Let's put something out there as a marker."

Carter baffled many in the room with his description of the new USC as "an aspiration to a floor of up to 2Mbit/s". He went on to compare it to the minimum standards of quality applicable to the water industry, but "with a kind of plus or minus".

"If you took the most remote household in the furthest part of the United Kingdom it might cost you £100m to provide that person with 2Mbit/s guaranteed; that wouldn't be an economically rational thing to do," he said. "So where you're stating this as a government document what you have to do is give yourself a little bit of wiggle room."

It's been reported that an earlier draft of the report said 2Mbit/s should be the hard minimum speed. Carter said he had considered several options before making his "wiggle room" recommendation.

The ongoing debate on how to fund very high speed internet access via next generation fibre network rollout also received a brief airing.

Carter said he expects the market to be able to justify rollout to between 60 and 65 per cent of the country. Beyond that, he said the government would have to examine options. He indicated that the earlier Caio report's recommendation that fibre rollout should not attract large public investment could be ignored by ministers. ®

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