Julia Kukiewicz of Choose.net points out that a focus on broadband speeds might make for a decent speech but it doesn’t add up to a credible Government technology policy, and argues that the question of “rural” broadband is actually a quality of service issue with mass appeal.
Jeremy Hunt has a need for speed and he’s speeding away from one issue in particular: rural broadband.
“To be the best you need to be the fastest,” the DCMS Minister said at a TechCity event in early August.
“The Lords Committee criticised me this summer for being preoccupied with speed, I plead guilty,” he went on, referring to a report that suggested not enough was being done to get the UK’s ‘final third’ on connections over 2Mb, “… we simply will not have a competitive broadband network unless we recognise the massive growth in demand for higher and higher speeds.”
Hunt isn’t alone in characterising those pressing rural investment as obstructive. Earlier this year Graham Jones, a Labour MP for Lancashire, complained that his local council’s £35 million investment in fibre would only bring, “faster internet shopping for millionaires” and take money away from poor urban areas.
Jones is exaggerating but rural access is seen as Conservative issue more broadly, overemphasised by Tory MPs and chronicled obsessively in The Telegraph because it affects voters in traditional Tory heartlands. These views have some truth to them – infrastructure is expensive; speeds are appealing – but they also perilously underestimate both the size of the rural issue and the strength of sentiment behind it.
In part, the problem is simply that the term ‘rural’ is misleading.
While it’s true that only a small minority – 13% – average speeds under 2Mb, about 40% of households in the UK are classed as not urban, and, of those, only the small proportion that can receive fibre or are close to their local exchange are likely to receive a good service.
Not only is infrastructure flagging under unprecedented user numbers, as the chart here shows, the UK’s biggest service upgrade of the past 10 years, to ADSL2+, fails to deliver significantly better service to households far from the exchange.
The ‘rural’ issue isn’t a load of moaning farmers – or as The Register puts it a cry that Sheep need Twitter – it’s actually a quality of service issue with mass appeal. If you read the Lords Report, that’s what they’re arguing for too: “what is important is the long term assurance that as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK.”
By giving more credence to the rural issue we could have a more nuanced and ultimately more helpful Government broadband policy. The reason we don’t is depressingly simple: focusing on speeds is far more politically expedient.
In his speech Hunt said he had, “an ambition to be not just the best, but specifically the fastest broadband of any major European country by 2015.
Which would be great if he hadn’t immediately added, “Indeed we may already be there.”
Which is it?
The truth is that Hunt doesn’t have to say. He’s leading by following here. BT and Virgin Media are already locked into battle on speeds and we’ve known for years that, without any Government investment at all, the market will provide fibre to most homes by 2015.
Where Government does have a role is helping to fill in the gaps where the market isn’t providing or, as that much-derided Lords report put it, “Government support… [is needed when] infrastructure providers are less commercially motivated to build new network connections… [these areas] are located almost everywhere… people without adequate broadband infrastructure are often surrounded by it.”
If politicians don’t find it expedient to admit this now, they may have to in the future.
Genuine grassroots support for thousands of broadband projects across the country is growing. Politicians would be wise not to squander it.