Labour has condensed its broadband strategy into one sentence in its manifesto for the forthcoming general election, leaving experts questioning its commitment to high-speed Internet services.
The fact that broadband services are not on the list of Labour's comprehensive election pledges is in stark contrast with previous ambitious targets for the technology. In February the eMinister moved to combat growing concern about the lack of available high-speed Internet services by submitting a report to the PM. Dubbed the "Heineken strategy" for its attempt to reach all aspects of the UK, the report promised that the UK would be the best place in the industrialised world for broadband by 2005 and pledged £30m to combat the growing rural/urban broadband divide.
But in the manifesto, broadband merits just one mention. "We will work to ensure that broadband is accessible in all parts of the country," reads the sentence in a section of the manifesto entitled Modernising our infrastructure for the information age. There is no reference to broadband Britain or the pledge to make the UK the best place for broadband by 2005. The majority of the section talks about the plan to get all government services online.
For ISP AOL, which has been at the vanguard of criticism for BT's ADSL rollout, it represents a dramatic u-turn for the government. Spokesman Matt Peacock believes it is a political priority because it is essential to the well-being of the economy. "We are very concerned about what is not happening to broadband Britain. Developments on the ground show a systematic failure of BT's wholesale roll out on the ground and unless we develop the infrastructure we need we will lose leadership as an ecommerce nation," Peacock said. He believes government needs to pay more attention to the issue of broadband because it is as crucial as the UK's core utilities. "It is not an Internet issue it is an infrastructure issue as important as the road and railway networks. It is an infrastructure that all businesses and consumers need which other countries are putting in place and we are not."
For Dan Stevenson, analyst with research firm Jupiter MMXI, the government is "clearly backtracking" following a series of damning reports about the UK's broadband rollout. "They are certainly not sticking their necks out and have changed their tune," he said. A series of analysts reports, including one from the OECD, has put Britain below France, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Norway, Spain, Germany, Austria and the Nordic nations in terms of broadband rollout.
However Stevenson points out that for the average person on the street broadband is probably not a major election issue. A recent survey from cable firm ntl found that three quarters of Brits had never heard of broadband. Until prices fall it is unlikely to become integral to most people's lives and the government can forget its targets thinks Stevenson. "Prices going up only makes it attractive to heavy users and for ordinary people there is no incentive to upgrade to broadband. UK will not be the broadband capital," he said.
Freeserve announced on Wednesday that it was to put up its broadband service to £50 a month and it seems likely BT Openworld and other providers will follow suit.
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