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Tories pledge to lay out 100Mbps fibre broadband

If they win the election, the Conservatives plan to extend high-speed broadband across the UK, using the BBC licence fee to pay for it
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The Conservative Party plans to roll out fibre broadband access to the majority of UK homes within seven years, should it win this year's general election.

The party said it intends to accomplish the rollout, which could involve either fixed-line or mobile technology, by changing regulations and forcing BT to open up its ducts and poles to rival operators. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, announced the plans on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, where he said that by 2017, almost all homes will be offered broadband access speeds of up to 100Mbps.

Money from the BBC licence fee could be used to fund the fibre rollout to certain parts of the country, where operators see no market value in providing connectivity of between 50Mbps and100Mbps, the Conservatives said in a subsequent statement.

"This amount would be leveraged to maximise the investment made, either by making it available as loans or on a matched funding basis," the statement read.

"If Britain's digital and creative industries are to become world-beaters, they must have a proper communications infrastructure," shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt commented in the statement.

"We are currently one of the slowest countries in the developed world for broadband. With the Conservatives, we'll become one of the fastest. High speeds will be available not just in our cities, but across the rural areas that have been left behind for too long."

The government's Digital Britain report, released in 2009, set out plans to extend fibre-based broadband access across most of the country. The report suggested that the market would be willing to fund two-thirds of a national deployment, and called for funding for the last third to come from a 50p-per-month levy on all fixed copper lines — an approach that the Tories reject.

Digital Britain also called for a portion of the BBC licence fee — specifically, the money left over from the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting — to be used to ensure a nationwide minimum broadband speed of 2Mbps by 2012. The Tories want to continue using the same 3.5 percent of the licence fee after 2012  to replace Labour's 50p levy as the funding source for fibre in rural areas.

The Tories said their plan for using the licence fee in this way would raise £130m per year for the fibre rollout. According to Digital Britain, the 50p plan would raise between £150m and £175m per year.

The Conservatives said that under their plan, fibre funding would not simply be distributed as large block grants, but would also be used "in an innovative manner", such as schemes to match funding for community broadband.

The Tories' proposals for opening up BT's infrastructure include forcing the company to make ducting and 'dark fibre' (unused fibre-optic cables) available to other operators. The party said this would cut down on the civil works that make up the bulk of the cost of a fibre deployment. In addition, the plan calls for BT's telegraph poles to be made available to other companies to run overhead cabling.

In addition, a Conservative government would carry out a survey of the UK's utility infrastructure, to see where sewers and other existing ducts could prove useful in laying fibre-optic cabling. Water, electricity and gas companies would then have to make their ducts available where needed.

The party also wants to update building regulations to make sure all new developments are able to receive super-fast broadband. It also plans to change the business rating system for fibre networks, which the party says discourages smaller operators from building their own networks.

BT issued a statement on Monday in response to the Conservative Party's proposals, in which it pointed out that it has earmarked £1.5bn over the next few years to roll out fibre access to 10 million homes. The telecoms company said it looked forward to "engaging with politicians from every party" to discuss public funding for the rest of the country.

"We are glad a consensus is emerging among the parties that public-sector stimulus is needed, even if there isn't yet a consensus on how it should be delivered," the company said. "We are open to discussing any measures that will help, rather than hinder, the availability of super-fast broadband and look forward to hearing from others as to how duct sharing can have a positive effect."

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