Government reveals super-fast broadband plans
Every community in the UK will gain access to super-fast broadband by 2015 under plans outlined today.
The private sector is to deliver broadband to two thirds of the UK. Other, mainly rural, areas will receive public funds to build a "digital hub" with a fibre optic internet connection.
Ministers say they aim for the UK to have Europe's best broadband network.
"The reason we want to do this is very simple -- it's about jobs," says Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Speaking to the Today Programme he said the government had a key role in "catalysing investment by the private sector" in broadband. Mr Hunt cited the example of South Korea which has high speed broadband throughout the nation and which was "90%" paid for by private firms.
The government has earmarked £830m for the scheme, with some of this money coming from funds given to the BBC to pay for the switch to digital TV.
Mr Hunt said the strategy would give the country Europe's best broadband network by 2015 and will be central to economic growth and the delivery of future public services, dependent on quick, reliable access to the internet.
Explaining why the government had abandoned the plans of the former administration that promised 2 megabits per second broadband for all by 2012, he said: "It's silly to hang your hat on a speed like two meg when the game is changing the whole time.
He added: "What we've said is that just giving people two meg is not enough, what people use the internet for is changing the whole time."
A recent study by the regulator Ofcom revealed that fewer than 1% of UK homes have a super-fast broadband connection, considered to be at least 24Mbps.
However, the government does not define the minimum speed it hopes super-fast services will achieve.
"In order to determine what constitutes 'the best' network in Europe, we will adopt a scorecard which will focus on four headline indicators: speed, coverage, price and choice," the strategy says.
"These will be made up of a number of composite measures rather than a single factor such as headline download speed."Difficult-to-reach areas
Much of the detail of the government's broadband strategy has previously been announced, including how it will be funded and the coalition's desire to see everyone able to access broadband with speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2015.
The coalition started with two challenges - how to get a minimum level of broadband to everyone and how to make sure that parts of Britain didn't get left out as super-fast networks rolled out. Ministers have decided to roll the two tasks together into one; the aim is that those who have missed out so far will leapfrog straight from dial-up to the super fast era.
The onus will be on local authorities to work with community groups and big businesses to work out how to build the digital hub in each place. There's plenty of scope for disagreement there, as rival firms and different technologies bid for the limited pool of cash.
So how does this compare with what the last government was planning? In one way it's less ambitious - the 2012 target for universal coverage has been put back to 2015; in another way more, with a bold target of Europe's best broadband by then.
And how will that be measured? By performance on price, choice, coverage and speed. Britain does well right now on the first three, but is way down Europe's speed league. Getting to the top of the table in five years won't be easy - the likes of Sweden and the Netherlands aren't just going to stand still.
Labour promised the same minimum speed for everyone by 2012.
But the coalition says that it will now roll together its drive for universal access with its strategy to deliver super-fast broadband.
At the heart of this is a plan to create a "digital hub" in every community by 2015.
"Our goal today is very simple: to deliver a fibre point in every community in the UK by the end of this parliament," Mr Hunt is expected to say when he delivers a speech outlining the strategy at the London headquarters of computer giant Microsoft.
Communities and local operators would then be expected to take on the responsibility for extending the network to individual homes.
The coalition has earmarked £50m of the £830m to pay for trials - particularly in difficult-to-reach areas - to see how it can ensure that super-fast fibre optic broadband reaches these communities in the timescale.
These new trials will run alongside projects in North Yorkshire, Herefordshire, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands, announced earlier this year.
"We will be inviting local bodies and devolved administrations right across the UK to propose new testing projects in April of next year, with a view to making a final selection in May," Mr Hunt will say.
In his speech, Mr Hunt will also confirm that the government will sell off parts of the spectrum in 2011 that could be used for mobile broadband services.Back aches
The strategy was welcomed by the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (Inca), a group of community broadband schemes.
"It is great that the government has taken up the 'digital village pump' idea that has been put forward by a number of broadband champions," said Malcolm Corbett, CEO of Inca.
"This could go a long way to tackling one of the big problems with all rural broadband services - the costs of backhaul - the connection from the community to the internet.
"However, more needs to be done and the strategy misses some obvious opportunities, not least the way that business rates are levied on fibre."
The current regime of levies on fibre installations has been a major bone of contention, with smaller firms claiming they are discriminated against compared to giants BT and Virgin Media.
Inca's view was echoed by Trefor Davies, CTO of communications firm Timico.
"The problem with this is that it is effectively handing the cash to BT because the fibre tax system will make BT the only company able to offer a competitive backhaul," he said.
Both called on government to address the levies and also to ensure that smaller firms had "viable" access to existing infrastructure - such as BT's ducts and poles - that would be used to carry their services.
Without this, they said, small firms would be at "a competitive disadvantage" compared to BT when bidding to provide services.
Mr Hunt said that BT had signaled that it will match the government's £830m of funding if it is awarded the contract to provide the infrastructure for the community hubs.
The firm said that if it was to "win funds on that scale" it would be able to provide fibre to 90% of the UK.
Under current plans, its fibre will extend to 66% of the UK, although only a quarter of this would be the faster Fibre-To-The-Home (FTTH) technology.
The rest is the slower Fibre-To-The-Cabinet (FTTC), similar to the government's "digital hub" plans, which does not guarantee a super-fast fibre connection all the way to a person's home.
BBC News website readers have been sending in their views. Here are a selection of comments.
It doesn't matter about high speed broadband. We don't get the advertised speeds now. We will just get a slightly faster amount of disappointment. Nothing changes. As we get faster, the rest of the world will get faster and leave us behind. Rob Carter, Bromsgrove
I wonder how this will be achieved in the area where I live? My house is more than one mile from a main road. Will the government be paying for fibre optic cables across farmland - perhaps belonging to several different owners? There must be thousands of similar situations around the country. Jon Pearson, Derbyshire
It will be great if you live in the city or large towns but they will never run this out in the countryside. I live only four miles from the exchange and cannot even get a reliable service, so how do they think I am going to get a super fast service? Another gimmick I'm afraid. Tim Barrett, Cumbria
We will have to go a long way to beat the likes of Holland where fibre to the home is common place. Currently Dutch ISPs are offering 50Mb with a free upgrade soon to 75Mb! Top! Paul Ridges, Kent
I would like to know what qualifies as "super fast" internet speeds. The benchmark is 2Mbps, but it is not stated what the new target value for 2015 would be. I feel sure that it won't be anywhere near what they have in South Korea, they reach speeds of 100Mbps all the time. In an internet review, South Koreans were asked what speed their internet connection was and in most cases it was well over 100Mbps, but the majority of them didn't even know because they had never even been concerned by it. Here we are stuck in the dark ages, trawling around with one to two Mbps in most places. It's ridiculous and Britain needs to pull up its figurative socks up and catch up with the rest of the world. Howard Harper, Bexley
Whilst in principle for faster broadband I agree - surely it would be useful to ensure that the whole country has mobile phone coverage. I was stranded in snow last week and no mobile phone operator provides service in my area - it is not remote - a place on the map where we have dustbin collections and postal deliveries. However being stranded in a snow blizzard I had to rely on people coming to look for me. Dorothy Clark, Northumberland
It all sounds good to me but when the minister talks about faster broadband "for every community", why exactly does he stop short of saying "for everyone"? Does he mean that at least one of your neighbours will get it but maybe not you? Remember - the previous promise was for 2Mbps for everyone. For what period of the 24-hour day will this be available? There is no such thing as an "average" anything unless this term is nailed down for specifics. Who is going to be responsible for the arbitrating the infrastructure? At the moment when something goes wrong (and you eventually get through on the phone to the provider), the provider blames BT and of course BT blames the provider. Nathan, Northampton
I've heard all this before. The existing BT broadband is advertised at being up to 20MB speed, but in my area it never gets faster than 7MB. I have complained but they state 7MB is the max the phone system in my area can take. I strongly suspect that this super fast speed will also be not as fast as advertised. Instead of getting a faster system, why can't we have the speeds as advertised at present? A Jones, Preston
Interesting to see that the target date for 2Mbps has been put back to 2015. Where I live we still have no internet access and by 2015 the 2Mbps will be as useful as dial up today. Charles Cooper, Wrexham
Everybody would like to have access to fast broadband, especially those here in the Highlands and Islands who can't get any broadband at all, and who, because of geographical disadvantage need it the most. However, this should be funded from general taxation. It is absolutely wrong for the government to raid the BBC TV Licence to pay for it. We pay our licences to the BBC to deliver its own programmes and services, not to replace taxation. John Wood, Cromarty, Scotland