Prime minister Gordon Brown looks to have given the go-ahead to a recession-busting programme of investment that could see super-fast broadband rolled out across the UK.
Speaking to The Observer newspaper yesterday, Brown revealed plans to create 100,000 new jobs by spending on public works, including investments in network infrastructure and backing for jobs in "digital industries".
"When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous times — and those were anti-recession measures taken to help people through difficult times — you could [by comparison] talk about the digital infrastructure and that form of communications revolution at a period when we want to stimulate the economy. It's a very important thing," he told the paper.
According to The Observer, Brown's investment in digital infrastructure will take the form of a high-speed broadband deployment, which has been interpreted by some as a move towards the rollout of fibre.
Any government fibre plans are likely to focus on fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) rather than fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), due to the costs involved: a recent report by the Broadband Stakeholder Group priced FTTC at £5.1bn, compared to £28.8bn for full FTTH.
Telcos, meanwhile, are taking steps to fund their own fibre deployments. In July last year, BT announced a £1.5bn plan to bring fibre access to 10 million homes, while Virgin Media recently unveiled a 50Mbps service.
However, government advisors have taken a lukewarm attitude to fibre to date. An independent review compiled for the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform by Francesco Caio, the former head of Cable & Wireless, stopped short of a call for immediate, major government investment in a fibre rollout.
The review said: "It is difficult to conclude that the UK is currently disadvantaged by the lack of NGA [next generation access, such as fibre]. This review has certainly found no application essential to public welfare that is being delivered by NGA that cannot be delivered over conventional networks."
The Conservatives however have come out in favour of a UK fibre deployment. In a speech on Monday, Tory leader David Cameron announced the party's strategy to tackle the economic downturn, including plans to give "the majority of the population" fibre within five years and "as near as possible universal coverage" within a decade.
"I am determined the next Conservative government will enable the next digital revolution. I am not talking about massive state-financed investment — that would be extremely expensive for the taxpayer and it would also risk stifling the innovation that comes from private-sector competition. Rather, the role of government is to facilitate, not deliver. It can do this by letting it be known that it will encourage and support the private investment required to develop the network," Cameron said.