Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Gordon Brown on high-speed broadband

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown has today made a powerful speech promising universal access to high speed broadband services by 2020. The No. 10 website today also has the story as its lead item, containing a full transcript).

The reason for the universal aspect of the promise is simple social justice – that high speed broadband ‘must be for all – not just for some’, in contrast to alternative plans reliant on the market alone which would see access determined ‘not even by need or social justice, or by the national interest, but by profitability alone’, ensuring the creation of ‘a lasting, pervasive and damaging new digital divide’. Under such a reliance, the Prime Minister continued, the UK would be ‘split between a fast-track and a slow-track to the future, between those fortunate to live in densely-populated areas and those not’.

The Connect Sector of Prospect has been arguing on precisely these lines for some time (and will be doing so again to the continuing BIS consultation on the Next Generation Fund. NB: I’ve reported the broken link; you can also find the consultation document here). Consequently, it is very pleasing that the Prime Minister is making the same points.

The commitment to a 2020 vision for high-speed universal broadband access builds on the government’s existing commitment to high-speed broadband to cover 90% of the population by 2017, towards which goal the Next Generation Fund is designed to assist and which the Prime Minister justified by saying that ‘if every household is to benefit, then it is fair that every household contributes’.

Interestingly, the aim to have universal access by a decade matches the timeframe for the Federal Communications Commission’s plans in the US (about which I blogged last week), though the approaches are otherwise quite different, based around the two headline issues of coverage and speed – which are clearly linked together in terms of investment (I would not go as far as saying that there is a trade-off between the two, but there may well be in terms of the ability to provide investment which meets required rates of return). The US approach builds on universal service at a minimum speed, but is otherwise dominated more by a high speed, ‘big bang’ (or should that be ‘big bucks’?) type of model; while the UK is more inclined to one based on universal coverage and a more incremental pace to speed.

Ensuring that the digital divide does not widen is the right approach – access to a high-speed broadband service is indeed an essential service (the Prime Minister repeated in his speech that superfast broadband is ‘the electricity of the digital age’). It should therefore be delivered on a universal, equitable basis across the nations and regions of the UK and it should be the preserve of every household. But the speed of the service is important, too, not least from the point of view of securing the economic benefits to the UK as a whole of high-speed services, and we must therefore ensure that we see the existing plans for high-speed access as part of a continuous approach to investment in the industry which does deliver guaranteed high speeds, and in both directions.


Written by Calvin

22/03/2010 at 10:50 am

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