Stephen Carter, the minister behind the Digital Britain interim report, says we face the worst investment conditions for years. So rolling out broadband to the whole nation will have to be financed through a delicate balance of private and public initiatives.
The Digital Britain project has been tasked with establishing a clear and achievable strategy to secure Britain's place at the forefront of the global digital economy. Although only at an interim stage, already one of the firm conclusions is that to reach that goal we now need a fundamental upgrade of our wired and wireless communications and broadcasting networks. That means action on spectrum, broadcasting and, perhaps most crucially, broadband.
We have long dismissed the view that broadband is only for the most technologically enthusiastic among us. Digital innovation is becoming increasingly linked to success in all sectors of the economy — including the more traditional manufacturing and services industries. We need, as a nation, to invest in high-speed broadband, both for our more immediate economic needs and for those of future generations.
Given the current economic downturn, no-one would argue that developing a comprehensive and cohesive digital infrastructure is not absolutely fundamental to our economic development, or even survival. The debate now is only about how to get there.
The Digital Britain interim report makes a universal service commitment. We believe people in all parts of the country should have access to broadband speeds that deliver the sort of services they want — this could be up to 2Mbps. Establishing the correct infrastructure to deliver this is vital and features right at the top of the Digital Britain agenda.
Our competitive market has taken broadband out to 99 percent of the country, but speeds are variable. Investment is continuing. Last year BT said it would invest £1.5bn in next-generation services and Virgin is already in the process of upgrading its network, which passes around half the homes in the UK, to 50Mbps by the end of this year. But even with all the planned upgrades to infrastructure, we can expect only about 96 percent of the country to be within reach of 2Mbps service by 2012.
If we are to achieve the aim of establishing universal broadband within the next five years, and maintain Britain's status as a world leader in the global digital economy, then an active and strategic approach is required by government. We need to identify what is standing in the way of a full rollout and how industry can be helped to establish the infrastructure needed.
In practice, I believe, we will develop plans for universal service commitment to be effective by 2012 and delivered by a mixture of fixed and mobile, wired and wireless means.
The independent Caio Review, published in September last year, found that the UK is well placed to deliver private investment in high-speed broadband networks and that the case for major government intervention was weak. And I am confident a lot of the progress will be made by creative people who work in the digital industries.
However, we are mindful that conditions for investment are the worst seen in many years. We will be looking at ways the government can facilitate and finance the next generation of broadband without distorting the market by overlooking monopoly and sacrificing competition for investment.
When it is published in the early summer, the full Digital Britain report will bring together the government's contributions in a coherent and focused form for establishing universal broadband in the UK.
But to grasp this opportunity to accelerate growth and cement the country's place as a world leader, we will need to work with the digital and communications sectors and draw on their expertise and support. Only by doing this will we ensure that Britain will be at the forefront of the global digital economy, generating wealth and employment opportunities for this and future generations.
Stephen Carter, minister for communications, technology and broadcasting at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, is the architect of the Digital Britain Review.