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How superfast broadband became Britain's election battleground

Labour and Conservatives offer different digital futures - but which is better for the UK?
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Labour and Conservatives offer different digital futures - but which is better for the UK?

Two visions of broadband Britain have been sketched by Labour and Conservatives as part of their pre-election campaign skirmishing. But as well as providing an opportunity for political point scoring, one of these visions is likely to end up shaping the future of UK businesses and consumers over the life of the next Parliament - for better or worse.

The next-gen broadband political battleground can be summed up as follows: universality versus speed.

In the red corner is Prime Minister Gordon Brown, waving his government's Digital Britain report and promising next-gen broadband for all.

The PM has pledged to ensure "superfast" broadband access reaches every home in the UK - whether it's in Orpington or Orkney. Brown's ubiquitous superfast future will apparently be funded by a 50p per month tax on telephone lines slated to raise £1bn by 2017 - but we don't know how long we have to wait to get the promised "100 per cent access in all UK homes".

Nor will the government be pinned to the ropes on speed. It talks only of 'next generation' and 'superfast' - admitting this might mean speeds of 50Mbps, or even 20Mbps, depending on where the user lives and how their next-gen broadband is being delivered. Both wired and wireless technologies are part of this access plan.

broadband fibre

Broadband Britain - fodder for political debate
Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the blue corner is David Cameron. The Conservative party leader is aiming high in the speed stakes: he wants to bring 100Mbps broadband to the "majority of homes" - though there's no word on how big this majority will be (51 per cent to 99 per cent makes for a lot of wiggle room).

How will Cameron get 100Mbps to a majority? His mantra is market-first: open the ducts, deregulate and let the market do the leg work. If this doesn't kick-start a fibre arms race - and analysts are doubtful - Cameron has a contingency plan: he'll slice out a chunk of the BBC's licence fee, post-digital switchover, to fund next-gen expansion.

So ultimately the Tories' plan is remarkably similar to the government's - albeit avoiding the politically unpopular position of creating a new tax.

So there you have it - two high-tech futures asking for your votes. But which is better for the UK?...

(And before you ask, the Lib Dems' superfast broadband ambitions fall somewhere in the middle - they want 40Mbps for the "vast majority" of the country by 2017).

You could argue that neither is good enough - that both lack the ambition required to push the UK into the fast lane on the global superhighway with countries such as Japan and South Korea. But short of enlisting every Facebook user in the UK to a 'Broadband Big Ambition' campaign - and getting the politicians running scared - calls for 1Gbps plus broadband are likely to be ignored - for now at least.

So of the two main options on the table, which is best: speed or ubiquity?

There's no doubt 100Mbps is an instant attention grabber. After all broadband speed is something of a national obsession in the UK. According to Ofcom CEO Ed Richards, the telecoms and media regulator's most downloaded piece of research is not, as you might expect, anything to do with Big Brother - but a report investigating the real-world speeds broadband users are getting, rather than the headline speeds their service is marketed as offering.

But the popularity of that report also indicates that Brits are keen to have their feet on the ground when it comes to broadband. They want to know what they're actually getting, not a theoretical maximum that someone somewhere might be enjoying. The Conservative Party's tech manifesto offers a similar headline pledge - 100Mbps - but there's a less flashy reality the Tories aren't shouting about: their tech plans could leave an unsung minority of the country trailing - perhaps indefinitely.

broadband fibre

Photo credit: Shutterstock

By seizing on 100Mbps the Tories look to be nailing their colours to a full-fibre-to-the-home mast - since fibre to the cabinet typically only offers up to 40Mbps. And while on the mobile side it's technically possible for next-gen LTE cellular networks to achieve speeds of 150Mbps+ in lab conditions, the real-world mobile broadband speeds achieved by users are likely to come in well under 100Mbps. Add to that there are currently no commercial LTE networks in the UK - nor dates set for UK rollouts so it's a pretty safe bet that wireless won't help the Tories deliver their plan. Not in the short term anyway.

But fibre is costly. Very costly. Back in 2008 the Broadband Stakeholder Group estimated that a full FTTH rollout in the UK would cost £28.8bn, yet the Tories' future fibre fund - borrowed from Auntie - will raise £120m per year after the 2012 digital switchover - or around £600m by 2017. A mere fraction of the cost of pushing FTTH everywhere.

How to reach the last third of the UK with next-gen broadband is a much chewed-over problem - the point at which the talk invariably turns to public subsidy. With all the deregulation in the world the Skys and Carphone Warehouses are not going to be falling over themselves to fibre up to remote farmhouses. The costs are simply too high. The returns on investment just aren't there.

Ofcom describes the varying costs of deploying superfast broadband across the UK as a key challenge - noting recently that laying FTTH in the last 10 per cent of the UK will cost more than three times the cost of doing so in an urban location...

Lining up the two tech manifestos, the reality is the Tories will not only have a smaller fibre fund to play with than the government but their push for speed (full fibre) will eat up the money more quickly - meaning some areas of the country are likely to be left languishing on slower speeds.

By contrast, the Labour option, in its avoidance of a flashy headline speed means their fibre fund could stretch further - and most people would agree that 20Mbps via mobile broadband is better than being stuck on dial-up indefinitely.

The most likely scenario for the Tories 'super high speed' broadband plan is it will find its way to cities and densely populated areas where ISPs can make ROI - indeed in some instances it's already on its way, via the likes of Virgin Media and projects such as Fibrecity in Bournemouth. But superfast broadband will speed past less densely populated and more rural or remote areas of the UK, leaving them trailing.

While faster speeds are nice to have, a baseline of universal superfast broadband is also more useful from a business point of view. Many businesses and citizens benefit if high speed broadband is everywhere, versus some benefiting if it's in some places.

Another key issue is public service delivery - putting government services online where everyone can access them has the potential to save the Treasury (and thus the taxpayer) a lot of money. But to do this requires universal service not a patchwork of highs and lows plus occasional notspots.

Rural areas have long been left behind digitally with dire consequences for jobs and services. Piping 100Mbps into the nearest city while a rural town struggles with 'up to 2Mbps' will surely just accelerate the exodus.

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