Towards Broadband Britain 2.0

The achievements of recent years need celebrating, but that’s no argument for complacency

Reading about broadband today can seem a bit like skimming through a history Athens after their boys pulled off that plucky away win in Troy. BT has made 2Mbps standard across its ADSL network — hurray! Wanadoo has started unbundling — yippee! UK Online is offering 22Mbps — hang out more bunting!

For those of us who lived through the black days when BT thought broadband was a fringe product (and Tony Blair didn't even know what it was) are delighted that close to 10 million homes now have a high-speed Internet connection at home.

This is a bedrock upon which Britain's e-commerce sector can flourish. It will also allow the government to roll out electronic public services, safe in the knowledge that almost all of the population at least has the chance to get an affordable broadband connection at home.

But this isn't the endgame, at least according to the Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC). It has a bigger vision, where multi-megabit, symmetrical broadband is available to everyone in the UK, not just those in urban areas.

The success of Broadband Britain today can be attributed to the partnership between government, industry, and campaigners. But these three groups have now diverged. ABC finds itself shunned by its former allies, and without industry and government support it has had to auction off the sponsorship of its keynote speech on eBay.

We have some sympathy with ABC. Clearly, a new broadband divide is forming, between those who can look forward to 20Mbps broadband, and those who will have to hope that their phone line can support just 512Kbps.

But this isn't as serious as the bad old days when vast tracks of rural areas were stuck with dial-up Internet access. The driver for super-fast broadband will be entertainment — IP-TV down your phone line and such like — an industry where market forces are especially powerful.

It's still very disappointing that the partnerships that drove Broadband Britain on have collapsed. There needs to be more debate about the future, else we will reinvent the failings of times past. As BT once said, it's good to talk.