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Carter attacks coalition over 2Mbps delay

The author of the Digital Britain report, along with other industry experts, has said the government was wrong to put back the date for universal 2Mbps connectivity by three years
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Stephen Carter, the author of the former government's Digital Britain report, has attacked the coalition government's decision to delay the two-megabits-per-second universal service commitment from 2012 to 2015.

Speaking at a Westminster Media Forum on Thursday, Carter — a former head of Ofcom — also lamented the failure of the regulator to force through the auction of spectrum that can be used for 4G mobile broadband services, such as LTE and WiMax.

Carter was, before Stephen Timms, the Labour government's minister for Digital Britain, charged with planning the country's investment in technology and connectivity over the coming years. One of the key recommendations in his report was that everyone in the UK should have access to broadband speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2012 — a target that the current coalition government recently shifted to 2015 as part of its austerity drive.

"I do not agree with the shifting from 2012 to 2015," Carter said on Thursday. "In fact, I remember at the time that the 2012 universal service commitment was launched we were pilloried for not not being 'ambitious enough' for the opposition."

"We as a country will want to have universal connectivity, and we will need it at a level that is far greater than 2Mbps."

Carter also referred to the coalition's rejection of another of his recommendations, that a 50p-per-month levy be placed on all copper phone lines to pay for the rollout of high-speed fibre broadband access to rural areas. He said it was "legitimate" that the coalition decided to change that Labour policy, but noted that "all the analysis" that had been done on the matter suggested the private sector alone would not be able to fund such a nationwide deployment.

Anna Bradley, the chair of the Communications Consumer Panel, said the UK could "not afford to wait" to implement universal 2Mbps access. She said the shift to online public services was a key reason. "Unless we have the wherewithall to make sure everyone can access them, we will not be meeting the needs of citizens," she said. "We have a plan [for online services] but we need a sense of urgency about implementing that plan."

However, Sean Williams, strategy chief for BT Retail, said the UK does "not need intrusive regulation mandating universal broadband coverage", adding that addressing so-called coverage notspots was the priority.

Hamadoun Toure, the secretary-general of the Intrernational Telecommunications Union, was also at the event. He weighed into the debate, saying it was "vital that Britain retains its focus on the goal of getting everyone connected".

"Only by achieving ubiquitious coverage, is transformative power achieved," Toure said.

Carter, who is now marketing head for Alcatel-Lucent, also attacked the telecoms regulator Ofcom for not forcing through the auction of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum.

"In all candour, not resolving the issue of the next wireless auction was probably not Ofcom's finest act," he told delegates. "As a consequence, many people have been trying to find a... balanced solution since then."

The former Digital Britain minister referred to the legal challenges from operators over how much spectrum can be allocated to certain providers, which have delayed the auction for years. He praised the former independent spectrum broker, Kip Meek, for coming up with a model "that could have worked" — the coalition has ditched that model too — but said he had an "understanding that there is now a clear direction".

"The operators in the room will say the sooner we add [mobile broadband] capacity, the better," Carter added.

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