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Whitehall invites broadband subsidy goldrush

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The government has invited internet firms to Whitehall to thrash out how taxpayers could help deliver "superfast broadband"* to rural areas.

At a one-day conference next month civil servants will also hear pitches on how to connect parts of the country that still cannot get basic broadband. The coalition is committed to the previous government's "Universal Service Committment" (USC) for broadband, which aims to ensure "virtually" every community has access to a 2Mbits/s service by 2012.

Potential suppliers will take part in "worked example" exercises for both "superfast" and USC subsidised deployments.

BT has said that there is a commercial case for it to upgrade about two-thirds of its national network to fibre-to-the-cabinet and fibre-to-the-premises technologies, which will apparently offer "superfast" service under the government's terms. The rest of the country is too sparsely populated to justify wholly private investment, BT insists.

"BDUK will be seeking complete and integrated responses which will require collaboration and partnering between multiple technology suppliers to demonstrate that together they that could deliver commercial ISP services to all premises in the chosen geographies," the government's invitation said.

BDUK is "Broadband Delivery UK", a unit within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills responsible for broadband policy under Tory minister Ed Vaizey. In line with the rest of government at present, BDUK indicated it will look for savings when allocating funds, "and so as to minimise the amount of public sector investment required and limit the potential to distort competition".

The Tories blocked Labour's £6 per year landline tax before the election, which had been earmarked to fund "superfast" rural fibre and wireless deployments. They argued market forces should be given more time, and that industry cooperations, such as duct-sharing, should be further explored.

The previous government meanwhile committed £200m of the digital TV switchover surplus to fund the USC. The coalition has backed this, and said it may continue to skim from the licence fee after 2012 to fund more broadband subsidies.

Details of the industry conference in July have been published in the Official Journal of the European Union, here. ®

*The government has used the phrase "superfast broadband" throughout discussions over the future of British internet infrastucture over the last few years, without ever defining quantitatively what it considers "superfast".

Vaizey gave the latest line last week: "Superfast broadband means broadband of sufficient speed and quality to deliver the services that will lead to Britain having the best broadband network in Europe.

"The technology used to deliver this could be fixed or wireless but will represent a significant upgrade on today's fixed and wireless networks."

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