Home & Office

Tories promise 100Mbps broadband - with a little help from the BBC

A Conservative government would scrap 50p telephone tax and tap up BBC licence fee instead...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

A Conservative government would scrap 50p telephone tax and tap up BBC licence fee instead...

The Conservative party is planning to enable access to up to 100Mbps broadband for "the majority" of the UK population by 2017, according to its shadow chancellor.

Speaking on the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, George Osborne said investment in next-generation broadband infrastructure could help create jobs and grow the UK economy.

"We should be aiming to be the country in Europe with the best superfast broadband - the world leaders in superfast broadband," he said.

"Countries like South Korea, Singapore - they are way ahead of us and they are seizing this new technology so the next Conservative government is going to aim to have 100Mbps broadband to a majority of the population by 2017."

However, the party is shying away from saying just how large a majority will be covered by the plans.

"The aim is to achieve universal coverage [by 2017] but we realise that it may be difficult to do that - we haven't put an exact figure on what we mean by majority coverage," a Conservative Party spokeswoman said.

To achieve their aim of giving most people access to superfast broadband, the Tory proposals include forcing BT to open its infrastructure - such as ducts and dark fibre - to other operators, a measure that regulator Ofcom last year noted "may lower the barriers to entry" to new operators.

BT centre

BT could be forced to open its ducts under Tory proposals
(Photo credit: BT)

The party also plans to explore the potential benefits of opening up other existing infrastructure, such as sewers, electricity and gas, for the delivery of superfast broadband, and to amend regulations to allow widespread aerial deployment of fibre using BT's existing telegraph poles - cheaper than digging up roads to lay cable.

According to broadband researchers Point Topic's chief analyst, Tim Johnson, opening up duct access won't have a significant effect on accelerating next-generation broadband deployments.

"It might possibly make a small contribution but it almost certainly wouldn't make a contribution in the areas where some kind of cross-subsidy is going to be needed," he told silicon.com.

"I don't think anybody really believes [opening up duct access is] going to be a major factor in bringing superfast broadband but it probably really would be quite nice to be able to do in some circumstances and some places, so it would help a bit," he added.

The analyst also predicted that opening duct access could just lead to more densely populated areas being "over-subscribed" with superfast broadband providers, with areas with low population density struggling to get any.

The Conservative proposals also plan to "re-examine" the case for changing the rates applied to fibre networks - which the Tories claim discourages new operators from building networks and "favours larger incumbent operators".

"We will publish new guidance that will provide a clear and updated statement on the levels of business rates to be charged on all fibre networks," said a party statement. "We will realign business rates to create a level-playing field for investment, aimed at encouraging new operators and ensuring that smaller companies and start-ups are not unfairly penalised."

Writing on its blog, ISP TalkTalk voiced support for the Tory proposals. "This is the right thing to do. Giving other operators the chance to invest in new technology is the only way to supercharge our way to superfast broadband," it said.

"Relying on BT to make the investment will slow and limit the rollout of superfast services, stifle innovation and leave Britain lagging behind in the global digital revolution."

Noting that countries such as South Korea are already aiming for up to 1Gbps broadband, the Conservatives' Osborne described the government's plan for universal broadband access of up to 2Mbps - set out in government's Digital Britain blueprint for the nation's digital future published earlier this year - as "a woefully poor ambition"...

"I think the best way to deliver [up to 100Mbps broadband to the majority of the population by 2017] is by breaking up the British Telecom monopoly... which holds back companies like Carphone Warehouse or Virgin," said Osborne.

"If we find the market can't do that then use the BBC licence fee, the digital switchover money in the BBC licence fee, to get broadband out to the rest of the country - but let's see first of all if we can have the market delivering that superfast broadband to the rest of the country."

Responding to the Conservative's proposals, a BT spokesman said in a statement: "We are investing £1.5bn to get fibre to at least 10 million homes by mid-2012 and we want to go further. Going substantially further will however - as we have seen with other countries - require some form of public sector support and so we look forward to engaging with politicians from every party.

"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."

A spokeswoman for the Conservative Party also confirmed the Tories will scrap the government's planned 50p tax on telephone lines to help fund the rollout of next generation broadband if elected - instead relying on deregulation of duct access to accelerate private sector deployment of superfast broadband, and a 'fill-in' fund of more than £1.3bn by 2017 taken from the BBC licence fee to plug any next-gen notspots on a case-by-case basis.

"We... think that the creation of the broadband tax is pulling the cart before the horse," said the spokeswoman. "When you immediately offer public subsidy you stop companies wanting to invest in that area."

"If there are black holes in rural areas where it's not profitable for companies to invest then we will look at public subsidy to do it," she added. "We want this amount [more than £1.3bn] to be leveraged to maximise investment - so what we would do is offer it as loans or on a match-fund basis so what you're doing is still encouraging these companies to invest."

According to Point Topic's Johnson, the Tories are playing catch-up on the broadband policy front.

"The Labour party has set out with the [Digital Britain report] a fairly clear policy a) that we need superfast broadband and b) here's a way of doing it, and the Tories frankly have swung round from rubbishing it to more or less following on with it.

"The main difference between the parties now is that the Tories oppose the [50p tax on landlines]... but still say that public money will be used - but the public money will come through different channels, from different sources so they're not saying it's not necessary to put public money into it."

Editorial standards