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Revealed: Blair's broadband wake-up call

Winning a second term as Prime Minister was the spur that concentrated Tony Blair's mind on the state of Broadband Britain, according to an insider
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

June 2001 was the date when broadband finally registered on the Prime Ministerial radar, according to one of the UK government's top communications strategists.

Ed Richards, on his last day of duty as Tony Blair's senior policy adviser on media and telecommunications -- before joining Ofcom as a senior partner -- revealed on Thursday that immediately after Labour's landslide general election win in 2001 he had been instructed to sort out the mess of Broadband Britain.

Speaking at a broadband lecture organised by the Oxford Internet Institute, Richards explained that he was unexpectedly summoned to see the Prime Minister on the first day back at work after the election. Once together, Richards' congratulations over the ballot box successes were swept aside by Blair, who was seized with the need for action.

"Tony Blair said 'First, I want you to tell me what this broadband thing is. Second, I want you to tell me why it's in crisis, and third, I want you to sort it out'," Richards told the audience.

Richards did not elaborate on exactly how he carried out this order from the top and although few would deny that the UK is in a far rosier position today than two years ago, it is unclear quite how much credit should go to the government.

In June 2001 the UK's broadband sector was in disarray. Take-up, especially of ADSL, was lamentable compared to rival countries and everyone from Microsoft to the e-envoy was demanding action.

Although BT was facing most of the condemnation, the Labour Party had also been criticised for including just one sentence about broadband in its manifesto for the general election.

By the end of 2001, BT has replaced both its chairman and its chief executive. In came Sir Christopher Bland, who had been appointed before the general election and Ben Verwaayan, who hadn't.

Under this new management BT soon slashed its broadband costs -- something that the then e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander had called for in autumn 2001 -- and launched a self-installation ADSL product. Together, these moves gave a massive boost to broadband take-up, which is now running at some 30,000 new connections per week.

Ben Verwaayen told journalists last summer that BT was in regular contact with the government to discuss broadband issues, but firmly declined to give out any details of these discussions.

The Iraq conflict must now have driven issues such as broadband from the forefront of Blair's mind, but according to Richards the PM's interest was much more than a one-day wonder.

"He remains fascinated by it. Not a quarter (of the year) has gone by without him asking for an update from me," Richards explained.

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