Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Don’t worry: we’ve still got the 2 Mbps USC!

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After yesterday’s stripping out from the pre-election legislative timetable of several of the things that the Connect Sector of Prospect has campaigned for as outcomes from the Digital Britain initiative, picking over the guts of what’s left leaves us with little more than the 2 Mbps universal service obligation oops, commitment.

Having read this this morning, I briefly wondered whether even this had survived – although indeed it has; it actually never formed a part of the Digital Economy Bill since no aspect of delivering the commitment needed fresh legislation.

Delivering the commitment to a 2 Mbps service by 2012 reflects the intention that broadband should be delivered on a universal service basis to all those areas in the country which are currently poorly served by broadband – i.e. by ‘no later than’ 2012, all homes in the UK, more or less, should have access to a broadband service of 2 Mbps. Digital Britain reported that currently some 11% of homes (pp. 53-58) – 2.75m in total – are not able to get access at this level of speed. Pursuing this commitment is to be the responsibility of Broadband Delivery UK, a body announced by Stephen Timms in early March and which is to be headed, so Timms announced in Parliament later that day (although it never featured in the BIS press release) by Adrian Kammellard, previously Head of Major Projects at Partnership UK. Broadband Delivery UK remains a somewhat mysterious body; as thinkbroadband comments, it is currently without a web presence – this is as close as I can find – and little information is available about it apart from it being constituted of a body of 12 staff from within BIS.

In the uncertainties of the pre-election period, it would be surprising if Broadband Delivery UK was to have much of a profile: its original workload was yesterday cut in half, although this cut may be restored if the outcome of the general election was to return a Labour government. Nevertheless, the other half – the 2 Mbps commitment – does remain and, given that it has all-party support, the establishment of Broadband Delivery UK prior to the election consequently ought not to interrupt its progress after it, whatever the outcome.

In that context, here’s my ‘Dear Adrian’ letter of the issues that remain to be resolved within the commitment. Some of these are long-term ones, perhaps a little outside of the central remit, but an early recognition that they are ones which need to be addressed would be welcome:

1. 2 Mbps was picked, in the words of the interim Digital Britain report, since it represented what, by 2012, ‘will be in step with standard broadband usage’ (p. 57). This was even then a little unambitious; some 15 months later it looks increasingly outmoded when average speeds are already twice that and when much higher speeds are being rolled out elsewhere. The commitment to a 2 Mbps can’t be changed, at this point, but what is on the tin should be what is in the tin – people benefiting from the USC should get access speeds which are not ‘up to’ but ‘at least’ 2 Mbps. The approach of the US National Broadband Plan, based on actual speed, has a lot to commend in this area.

2. 2 Mbps is a welcome start in terms of ensuring that all broadband coverage is applied on a universal service basis. But it is only a start and, in the grander scheme of things, it isn’t very fast and will, in time, simply provide a very linear demarcation of the digital divide. Some thought therefore needs to be given to how this speed will change over time and, specifically, how it will be uprated: if it is not, people behind it are likely to lose out as speeds are driven faster and faster elsewhere. So, there needs to be a formal review mechanism to ensure continuing relevancy (or perhaps, better said, to guard against increasing anachronism).

3. A 2 Mbps speed refers only to download speeds, not upload ones. In a Web 2.0 world dominated by active sharing, rather than passive receiving, and by cloud computing, upload speeds will adopt increasing importance. Thought therefore needs to be given as to how these can be reflected within the commitment, and also encompassed within the regular reviews of the speeds embraced by it.

So, there remain some things within the current policy programme which can still be pushed, to go on top of the things which need to be reinstated on 7 May. And, above all, Charles de Gaulle was right.

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Written by Calvin

08/04/2010 at 4:30 pm

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