Broadband Britain: Where's our revolution?

Slow and steady won't win this race...

Slow and steady won't win this race...

Yesterday the comms minister, Lord Carter, unveiled a draft strategy which the government hopes will ensure the UK keeps pace with tech change and grows its digital economy over the next five years and beyond.

The interim Digital Britain report sets out a pledge of universal broadband access by 2012 at speeds of up to 2Mbps via fixed and wireless networks. The final word will come in the summer when the full report is published.

The first point to make here - as noted by Forrester analyst Ian Fogg - is that while universal broadband access is a worthy aim, setting such a low speed bracket smacks of a "lowest common denominator" approach to broadband delivery.

Broadband from A to Z

Click on the links below to find out more...

A is for ADSL
B is for BT
C is for Cable & Wireless
D is for Dial-up
E is for Education
F is for Fibre
G is for Goonhilly
H is for HSDPA
I is for In-flight
J is for Janet
K is for Kingston
L is for Landlines
M is for Murdoch
N is for Next generation
O is for Ofcom
P is for Power lines
Q is for Quad-play
R is for Remote working
S is for Satellite phones
T is for Trains
U is for Unbundling
V is for VoIP
W is for WiMax
X is for Xbox
Y is for YouTube
Z is for Zombies

Far from future-proofing the national network, Carter's strategy is one that looks more like getting by on barebones. While it might be enough in the short term, were it to be magically deployed overnight, in four years' time - the date set by Carter for achieving universal access - speed and bandwidth requirements will only have increased.

Getting more people fast internet access inexorably leads to increased use of web apps and services, which in turn will fuel the need for speed.

Carter said the government's thinking on not even setting a floor of 2Mbps is there may be parts of the UK where it would be prohibitively expensive to even ensure a 2Mbps connection, and he likened this to the wiggle room given to utility companies - saying, essentially, a glass of water in London is not the same as a glass of water in another part of the UK but they are both drinkable.

While this argument is understandable - and will have its sympathisers, certainly those who have to fork out the cash for infrastructure upgrades - it does mean the report's universal broadband pledge has been watered down to the point where it's woefully weak.

Another point about UK broadband that risks being muddied by talk of 'universal access' is the difference between the 'have nots' and the 'can't haves'. Broadband notspots aren't the massive problem they once were - we are a Fat Pipe Nation these days (on a personal note, last year my mum was finally able to get broadband to her house in rural mid-Wales). According to Forrester's Fogg, broadband is technically available to more than 99 per cent of UK homes.

The 35 per cent figure of broadbandless homes that is bandied about is more likely to refer to people who, for whatever reason, don't sign up for broadband services - be it financial, cultural or simply a lack of interest. And there is evidence to show those on lower income and in ethnic minority groups are less likely to be signed up.

To tackle the have nots, Carter's report sets out an intention to encourage the development of "public service champions of universal take-up" - with the Beeb being invited to take "a leading role in driving take-up".

And while encouraging take-up - and educating people on the benefits of broadband - is of course a laudable aim, perhaps the government's energies (and cash) would be better spent on persuasion by impact?

Widespread access to 100Mbps+ broadband is surely more of a call to arms for digital Britain than an apologetic and flaccid 'up to 2Mbps'. Let a UK superfast broadband network - enabling truly next-gen services - act as a champion.

As it stands, Lord Carter has decided to continue taking time out considering whether it's wise for the government to help fund fibre-speed deployments, and the interim report suggests he favours "market-led" investment. Which is very likely to mean more of the same: relying on BT et al to put their hands in their pockets, and/or local communities to get so bored of waiting for the digital revolution they start digging up roads themselves.

Or in other words, an evolution not a revolution. And an opportunity missed.