Who really needs it?
Access to broadband is an essential requirement for what MPs do, whether that’s responding to constituents to researching the policy issues. I have an office in the centre of Newcastle. It already has 100Mbits broadband.
Now that will not be the case across the whole of the city. I am glad Newcastle has won some funding to improve its digital infrastructure and I am sure it can be improved. I do not want growing businesses in Newcastle to feel they have to move to London to get the broadband they require and for some applications such video conferencing or computer aided design (CAD) 100Mbits is needed right now.
But I would be more confident the money would genuinely make a difference if I saw some signs of a coherent strategy. What is the market for 100Mbits broadband in urban areas and where is the evidence that the commercial sector needs help to meet it?
Last year’s Communications Management Association’s (CMA) Internet Opportunity Survey did show that there was unmet demand for 100Mbits – but also that 27% of businesses don’t have decent broadband available at all their sites. Ofcom’s Infrastructure Report 2011 said 14 percent of all UK premises still don’t have decent fixed broadband and 27% of premises don’t have access to mobile broadband, mainly in rural areas.
I tried to find out how much thinking was behind the proposals by asking some parliamentary questions but did not learn much:
Chi Onwurah: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport what assessment his Department has made of the willingness of commercial companies to roll out broadband services of speeds of 80 to 100MBits in the 10 proposed super-connected cities.
Mr Vaizey: In support of this initiative, BT and Virgin Media have committed to strengthening their networks in the winning cities and will be offering their broadband services with 80-100 Mbps potential. It is also possible that other suppliers may make similar proposals.
Chi Onwurah: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport what assessment he has made of demand for broadband services of 80 to 100MBits in the 10 proposed super-connected cities.
Mr Vaizey: It is expected that local authorities will assess demand for unmet broadband services as part of their bid.
I do look forward to seeing the local authority assessments, compiled no doubt by telecoms consultants who seem to be the primary beneficiary of this ad hoc and fragmented approach. But the wider economy is in desperate need of the benefits of a fit-for-purpose digital infrastructure.
Everyone knows that £1 billion is not enough to deliver superfast broadband everywhere, but how can we be sure that the money is being put to the best use possible? We can only hope that in the much delayed Communications Green Paper we finally get to see how BDUK, super connected cities, the mobile infrastructure project and enterprise zones have their proper place in a coherent digital infrastructure strategy, and are not simply super ad hoc!
Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for innovation and science, and MP for Newcastle Central