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Lords blast UK.gov's fixation on broadband speed over reach

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The British government's broadband policy is failing to create a built-to-last national network because it is too fixated on speed, a House of Lords committee has concluded.

An 80-page report entitled Broadband For All - An Alternative Vision released this morning by peers sitting on the communications panel - having heard from witnesses that included BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media representatives - highlighted concerns about the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) process.

The committee's chair Lord Inglewood said:

Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.

He added that it was clear that the government had committed to a massive digital-by-default agenda, but if it failed to address network infrastructure issues with "better provision" for all British citizens, then it risks marginalising or excluding access for some parts of the population.

At the last count (according to one-woman-Web2.0-crusade Martha Lane Fox), some 9 million Britons were said to be internet refuseniks. Despite that, the government is hoping to push as many public services online as possible – even if such a move isolates the elderly, the disabled and poor communities in the country.

The concern was not lost on the committee.

Inglewood said: "If broadcast services move to be delivered via the internet for example, as we believe they may be, then key moments in national life such as the Olympics could be inaccessible to communities lacking a better communications infrastructure." The committee recommended the creation of a "robust and resilient national network" that would bring "open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community."

The peers added that such hubs would allow local communities and businesses to quickly access the broadband provision they want, with a view to being able to upgrade that network over time.

Among other things, the committee called on the government to consider the following changes to its broadband upgrade policy:

That Ofcom actively considers changes to several aspects of the regulatory regime;

The government should undertake a detailed costing of the committee’s proposal, not least because it removes the final mile - the most expensive per capita component of the network - from the costs requiring public subsidy;

That the government pay urgent attention to the way public funds are being distributed, particularly the operation of the Rural Community Broadband Fund;

The government & industry should consider the long term possibility of switching terrestrial broadcast from spectrum to the internet.

The committee also spoke about comms watchdog Ofcom, and said it should be given powers "to monitor and foster the efficient utilisation of existing capacity (including, for example, use of the communications infrastructure owned by other infrastructure providers) to provide a robust and resilient national network that promotes affordable open access to wholesale and retail connectivity across the UK."

The peers' report threw its weight behind the European Commission's calls for dark (unlit) fibre at the cabinet-level to be opened up to rivals as a "condition of BDUK’s umbrella state aid permission."

As The Register has previously reported, the EC's concerns have led to competition officials in Brussels effectively stalling the entire BDUK process. This move meant - as a spokesman for the department for culture, media and sport admitted to us earlier this month - that while there remained "a great deal of preparatory work that councils can do" there won't be any "spades in the ground" until the impasse is dealt with.

The department for culture, media and sport told El Reg in response to the report:

The market will deliver superfast broadband to two thirds of UK households, with BT investing £2.5bn upgrading its network and Virgin Media delivering access to 100Mbps to nearly 50 per cent of UK households.

To support this, the government is investing £530m over the lifetime of this Parliament to ensure that at least 90 per cent of households have access to superfast broadband, and virtually everyone will have access to a good standard of broadband. The government considered a number of models for delivering superfast and universal broadband.

We believe that working with the private sector and local authorities is the best and most cost effective approach and we remain on track to deliver our broadband commitments. We will be responding to the report in full in due course.

Bell-slinging Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt previously set an ambitious target of gifting the UK with the "best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015" based on a scorecard set by Ofcom, rather than the EC.

At present, Blighty dawdles behind other Euro nations in the broadband speed stakes, which perhaps explains why Hunt wants the country to set its own criteria - turning it more into an egg'n'spoon race, rather than a 100m dash for first place. ®

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