Jeremy Hunt’s broadband legacy
Freshly triumphant from a successful Olympics (with more to come from the Paralympics) culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has been outlining his ambition to have not only the “best broadband in Europe” but also the fastest.
In a speech this week week he said, “We simply will not have a competitive broadband network unless we recognise the massive growth in demand for higher and higher speeds.”
He added government is considering how to allocate the £300m from the BBC licence fee earmarked for broadband investment. “In particular we will look at whether we can tap into to this to allow those able to access superfast broadband to be even greater than our current 90% aspiration,” he said.
Is that good news for rural communities? Not necessarily.
Hunt quoted Ofcom’s recent finding that average UK broadband download speeds had hit 9.1Mbps. However, the small print in the Ofcom release said the SamKnows study “includes only ADSL customers within 5km of the exchange and in geographic Markets 2 and 3 and in the Kingston-upon-Hull area”.
So the 9.1Mbps does not include Market 1, roughly two-thirds of geographic UK where BT is the sole supplier. Had it done so, the average download speed would be more modest.
Hunt is clearly hoping that the mobile network operators will fill in the gaps. The government has allowed Vodafone to pick up Cable&Wireless Worldwide’s national fibre network, essential for backhaul. Ofcom’s decision to allow mobile operator Everything Everywhere (EE, aka T-Mobile UK and Orange UK) to refarm its 1800Mhz spectrum for LTE will help extend high speed access. This assumes EE and Three, which is buying the chunk of spectrum EE is forced to sell to comply with its merger conditions, can lay their hands on affordable consumer connection devices. Barring legal challenges, this may come ahead of the auction of 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands sometime net year, which stipulates in-house coverage of 98% of UK homes.
Once that is done, the mobile operators can apply for £100m to reach into rural areas, and compete with fixed operators for a further £150m to upgrade broadband speeds in selected cities.
With Hunt confident that DG Competition will clear the way to release £530m in state aid for county broadband projects, it is hard not feel buoyed by the prospect of so much money pumped into networks.
However, there is a danger that the impending investment will deepen the existing digital divide between town and country communities.
Hunt will do well to make sure that every penny of the £530m is spent outside the suburbs, so too the £100m for mobile coverage, and the BBC’s £300m. If he could find a way for communities like B4RN to invest their own money with confidence, he could unlock more millions, and ensure Britain gets the broadband network it needs. That would be a legacy no-one could take away from him.