A recent broadband industry event in London marks a major shift in the approach adopted by policy-makers to super-fast connections, says Malcolm Corbett.
In July, 140 people crammed into the conference room at the Department for Business to hear ministers and officials describe their new broadband policies.
Billed as the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) Industry Day, discussion centred on two key issues: the Universal Service Commitment (USC) — guaranteeing everyone broadband speeds of at least 2Mbps — and plans to roll out super-fast next-generation broadband into areas BT doesn't consider commercially viable.
Headlines focused on the announcement by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and communications minister Ed Vaizey that plans to guarantee the USC by 2012 were being pushed back to 2015, which met with howls of rage from rural campaigners. Their reaction was understandable, but the headlines didn't capture the full importance of the day.
Hunt and Vaizey explained that the £200m set aside for the USC wasn't really enough money — and certainly not enough in the short term to guarantee future-proofed solutions.
Instead, BDUK will undertake several exercises that will look to the market for ways of rolling out super-fast broadband more widely and to tackle an irreducible core of 160,000 premises that can't get broadband at all.
There will be public subsidy, probably in the region of £150m per year. But the government, admitting it doesn't have all the answers, wants us all to get creative.
The ambition exhibited by ministers and their honesty about the means available was impressive. There isn't a big pot of central government money available, and they weren't talking about a top-down approach where Whitehall thinks it knows all the answers.
Instead, they are seeking a partnership approach working with industry, local government and communities. Jeremy Hunt described this as "a national policy with a local approach".
BDUK is being set up to act as advisers and, to some extent, bankers to local schemes and they are talking about providing investment, rather than simple subsidy.
Alongside a paper exercise to look at potential solutions to USC problems in three areas — Swansea, Sutherland and near Lancaster — BDUK is asking regional development agencies and local authorities to draw up lists of potential projects for super-fast broadband leading to funding of £5m to £10m each for three market testing pilots.
Contract awards are expected in the second quarter of 2011. The government is keen these projects provide the sort of information on technical and commercial models that can be rolled out more widely.
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