The government will subsidise a fibre-connected cabinet for each community ignored by the private sector's push to deploy fast broadband around the country, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt announced on Monday.
The plan — which will involve £50m worth of pilot projects — brings together two programmes inherited from the Labour government. One is to provide universal broadband of at least 2Mbps across the UK, and the other is to ensure that fibre-based connectivity reaches the mostly rural 'final third' of the country that the private sector deems uneconomical.
Jeremy Hunt, pictured at the 2009 Conservative Party conference, has announced subsidies for super-fast broadband. Photo credit: Conservative Party
Having already shifted the deadline for 2Mbps back by three years to 2015, the government is now signalling it wants much faster connectivity available to everyone by that date.
In a speech to the think-tank Reform on Monday, Hunt said that super-fast broadband would bring new jobs as well as fresh opportunities for telemedicine and education. He praised BT and Virgin Media's rapid deployment of super-fast broadband connectivity, as well as moves by smaller providers such as Vtesse and Rutland Telecom.
"The government does have a key role to play in stimulating competition and catalysing investment in the new infrastructure we need," he said, pointing to the £530m that the government recently diverted from the BBC licence fee to rural fibre as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. The government has also indicated that a further £300m can be found if needed.
"The strategy we are publishing today represents our plan for how to spend it in a way that will stimulate the greatest possible investment in our super-fast broadband network," Hunt said.
The culture secretary listed various steps the government has already taken, including forcing BT to open up its ducts and poles to competitors, clarifying existing guidelines for street works to improve co-ordination, encouraging broadband-ready new-build houses, and releasing new spectrum for mobile broadband.
Hunt stressed that the government favoured a technologically neutral policy on broadband provision — the end user may get their connectivity via fixed, wireless or even satellite means. However, he said it was nonetheless necessary to get fibre "deeper into the network".
"In order to help achieve this, I can announce that we will be making up to £50m of funding available for a second wave of super-fast broadband market testing projects — to add to those that we have already established in North Yorkshire and Herefordshire, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands," Hunt said. "We will be inviting local bodies and devolved administrations right across the UK to propose new testing projects in April of next year, with a view to making a final selection in May."
The culture secretary also highlighted a few of BT's recent moves, notably the telco's plan for a 1Gbps trial in Kesgrave early next year, and "a signal that they intend to bid for our £830m investment by matching it with a similar investment".
A spokesman for Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said that the government's commitment extended to providing a link between a fibre cabinet in each relevant community, and their closest exchange. "The existing copper network should be sufficient to provide super-fast broadband speeds to the majority of homes in that community," he told ZDNet UK.
The DCMS spokesman stressed that Hunt's new scheme did not necessarily involve BT in each case, but was "available to whoever can come up with the best proposal to provide good services and the most cost-effective way — it could be BT, a local consortium or another provider".
The government has not "put a definition on 'community'", he added. "The likelihood is, if it is three houses on top of a mountain, that's not a 'community', but a village is."