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Coalition UK Government to Appoint New Minister for Broadband

Posted: 18th May, 2010 By: MarkJ
2012 uk 2mbps signThe governments Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has confirmed rumours that it will appoint a new minister for broadband by the end of this week. The BBC reports that Culture Minister Ed Vaizey is rumoured to be one possible candidate for the role.

Whomever takes the post will immediately find themselves tackling a very difficult set of issues. Firstly they will need to ensure that everybody in the country can receive a minimum broadband download speed of 2Mbps by 2012 (Universal Service Commitment). The USC has cross-party support, though some ISPs feel it does not go nearly far enough.

The General Manager of ISP Entanet UK, Elsa Chen, commented today:

"Since its conception, several parties including Entanet have continually argued that 2Mbps is not enough, especially as the MPs are supposedly striving to make Britain a world leader in the provision of broadband services. Who are they trying to kid…that’ll never happen with a USC of only 2Mbps.

As we have stated in the past, whilst we applaud the government for addressing the digital divide issue, imposing a USC of just 2Mbps will not solve the problem. Instead we will simply be forced to play a continuous game of catch up.

Whilst new bandwidth hungry services and applications continue to increase in popularity (e.g. SaaS, IPTV etc) the faster, more robust connectivity services that are demanded to support these services will continue to be rolled out to the most densely populated areas first.

The UK’s ‘not-spots’ will be left continuously trying to keep up. When they eventually receive their 2Mbps connection by 2012 the rest of the UK will have already been upgraded to ADSL2+ at least, providing speeds of up to 24Mbps. To make a real difference and truly position the UK as a ‘World leader’ in the provision of Internet services, the USC should be set much higher, encouraging further network expansion and innovation."

The new minister will also find themselves being tasked with trying to figure out the best way to support next generation fibre optic broadband deployments. The Conservative/LibDem government has yet to outline any finalised plans, which were not mentioned as part of their post-election coalition deal.

Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Community Broadband Network (CBN)/INCA, told the BBC :

"We need to appoint a minister as quicky as possible. Without it UK broadband risks drifting and that is not a good thing for UK competitiveness ... Ed Vaizey would be a good bet as he is on top of the issues."

The CBN claims it "supports, promotes and develops community-owned broadband schemes", though FibreStreams Guy Jarvis promptly resigned from its board in January 2009 when, after three years of voluntary and unpaid effort, "it became apparent that certain colleagues on the board had no intention for CBN to ever get back on track and instead wanted to repurpose CBN into a directors consultancy for commercial gain" (here).

Getting back on track. We strongly suspect that the new government will follow the Conservative party approach, not least because Labour and the LibDem's 50p phone line tax proposal has become widely disliked. Instead they would use part of the BBC's TV Licence fee (£130m per year - 3.5% Digital Switchover budget) to help fund a 100Mbps next generation broadband rollout "across most of the population" by 2017. What exactly does "most" mean? 51%? 70%? 99%?

However the Licence fee money would only be used after 2012, allowing the private sector time to tackle the problem itself. To help facilitate this the Conservatives have promised market charges. They want BT and other infrastructure providers to open access into their cable ducts and plan a review of the controversial Fibre Tax.

Suffice to say that the new government has a lot to prove and it would certainly be a promising sign if they got to work on the issues sooner rather than later. Nobody expects a grand rush to happen, not given the current importance of deficit reduction, but putting broadband on the back burner would only make things worse in the long run. Appointing a minister for broadband could help to alleviate some of the concerns.
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