Government attacked over broadband commitments

Select committee adds voice to growing concern about broadband

The government's commitment to broadband was brought into serious question by MPs on Thursday.

MPs sitting on the Department of Media, Culture and Sport select committee have accused the government of failing to take account of citizens' needs, and have challenged e-Minister Patricia Hewitt's assertion that the UK is leading broadband roll out in Europe. The criticisms come as part of the select committee's response to the government white paper on Ofcom, the body that will take on telecoms and television regulation in the future.

The language is regarded as extremely strong for a select committee document. "We are deeply disappointed that the government's braodband strategy appears to be developing in virtual islation from the public and consumer needs," the document reads. It criticises the government for ignoring the role digital television and Internet-based broadcasting can play in driving broadband take-up. "We believe it reflects a broader underestimation by both government and industry of consumer demand for broadband service."

The e-Minister was called before the committee to answer questions about broadband and denied there was a crisis. "Ms Hewitt rejected the very pessimistic views that we are hopelessly lagging behind," the document reads. It clearly doesn't share her opinion. "In the race to develop widespread and competitive broadband networks, the United Kingdom has barely left the starting blocks," it states.

Tom Steinberg a researcher at the Institute of Economic Affairs, also gave evidence at the select committee. He believes the contradiction between the committee and Hewitt is "as close as you can get to accusing someone of telling an untruth". He challenges the e-Minister to provide solid evidence that the UK is on track with its broadband delivery. "There are plenty of surveys pessimistic about broadband but when the government rebuts them there are no figures," he said.

Steinberg blames BT for the slow take-up of broadband in the UK and believes the government must put pressure on the telco to ensure its break-up leaves a network that is fair and equal for everyone. At the moment Steinberg feels the government is in denial. "They blankly deny there is a problem with BT. They seem to believe there isn't a problem," he said.

Government plans to make the UK the best place for broadband by 2005 have been criticised by industry. On Friday the National Consumer Council added its voice to complaints. Director Anne Bradley called on government to clarify what it means by universal access. "We need clarity on whether they mean Internet access at home, work or in the community and what exactly we trying to acheive by 2005. Physical access by itself is not enough," she said. She is also concerned that the government strategy is too business focused.

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