State pledges broadband for all by 2012

Britain will be brought into the digital age in time for the London Olympics as every home will get broadband access by 2012, the government has declared.

Under what Lord Carter called the “universal service commitment,” all homes were promised minimum download speeds of 2Mbps, fast enough to watch video online.

The communications minister’s proposal was at the heart of Digital Britain – An Interim Report, a 22-point plan to digitise Britain’s economy and create thousands of digital jobs.

Welcoming the report and explaining its timing, Gordon Brown said digital technology was as important today as “roads, bridges and trains were in the 20th Century”.

But critics of the Prime Minister said the report was low on ambitions, despite it also addressing the callings for super-fast broadband and more rights for digital content creators.

They pointed out that, if achieved, the download speeds of all Britain’s 26m homes in 2012 would still lag behind the nation’s average speed today of just over 3Mbps.

Even Lord Carter hinted such a speed might not be fast enough to meet the needs of UK consumers and business, saying demand for a 20Mbps service between now and 2012 “is likely.”

But at this stage, he said demand for services offering maximum speeds of 100Mbps was “very uncertain,” though his report does pave the way for some form of next generation broadband.

The cost of upgrading infrastructure to deliver 2Mbps for all homes is likely to be split between a “range of communication providers, and those who provide communications services over the network.”

Speaking after his report, Lord Carter added that the cost would be met by “industry working in partnership with government,” confirming BT will not be the only source of funds.

But consumers are likely to have to pay some of the costs too, though no amount was specified nor was the point at which they would be incurred. Enders estimates that today 1m homes are in broadband ‘not-spots.’

“We expect that ... the end consumer should, beyond a certain point, make a contribution to the cost of providing connectivity,” states the report, which is open to industry responses until March 12, 2009.

It added that by the time of final report, the government will know whether internet service providers can build next generation networks unaided or if government help will be needed.

In the meantime, officials will consider issues of demand and supply for the next-generation networks and look at the regulatory framework needed to ensure their “timely” rollout.

Welcoming the strategy, the Broadband Stakeholder Group said next generation broadband represented “the biggest economic prize at stake” out of all of Lord Carter’s proposals.

Chairman Kip Meek said: “The government has set out the key issues and is stepping up to the task of setting a clear strategic framework that encourages the sector to invest – and the country as a whole to benefit.”

The UK’s internet and communications industries, worth £50bn and pitched by Mr Brown as the “backbone” of the economy for years to come, can expect super-fast networks to cost anything from £3bn to £29bn.

To protect and preserve the industries, the government said it would look at setting up a Rights Agency to examine ways to tackle illegal downloads and copyright infringement online.

As well as considering incentives for legal use of copyright, the agency might enable “technical copyright-support solutions” designed to satisfy consumers while at the same time respecting the rights of content creators.

“Britain has always led the world in content creation - with the best music, films and TV - and it is vital that we carry forward this strength into the digital age,” said Culture Secretary Andy Burnham.

“This is a significant report for the creative industries, taking steps to establish workable systems of copyright in an online age and to preserve choice of public service content. But it is only the beginning of the process and we need to work hard in the coming months to secure workable solutions.”

The government also made clear it wants internet service providers to notify illegal file-sharers directly about their activity, and hopes to collect “anonymised” data on the “serious repeat infringers.”

Ministers said they would introduce new legislation requiring ISPs to act but promised to first consult with industry on the proposals, which the government said it would set out in detail shortly.


3rd February 2009

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