Rumour has it that ‘Super connected cities’ were dreamt up on the spur of the moment when Chancellor George Osborne announced he’d ‘found’ £100 million and wanted to do something sexy with it.
There were similar stories around the genesis of the mobile infrastructure project (MIP) in October 2011, so they may be apocryphal, filling the void left by the absence of any coherent digital infrastructure strategy. Or they may be an accurate reflection of this government’s approach to digital policy development.
To be honest I’m not sure which is worst. In any case, I suspect they come down to the same thing – super ad hoc.
Where’s the vision?
I was with Ofcom for six years before entering parliament in 2010, focusing on broadband and the digital economy. I’m not saying Labour ministers and the Business, Innovation and Skills Department (BIS) officials who worked for it were the subject of universal or unalloyed admiration. But you could not accuse the previous government of a lack of focus or consistency on digital infrastructure. There was strategy, there was a vision and there was a plan.
The Digital Economy Report was the culmination of that focus. Written by Lord Carter, former CEO of Ofcom, it followed the Caio Report, the Interim Digital Economy Report, the Gower Review and a series of reports from the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) and others. There was even an independent spectrum broker, Kip Meek, gently banging mobile companies’ heads together to get a deal on spectrum.
There was a clear and well resourced process to get all the ducks in a row to ensure the UK had the infrastructure we need. It is therefore doubly frustrating that the new government chose to blow all the ducks out of the water and embark on a new approach – of sorts.
After dithering on the spectrum auction, they announced £530 million for superfast broadband by 2015. Then another 300 million was ‘found’ from the BBC. In the meantime Labour’s pledge of decent broadband for everyone by the end of this year was quietly dropped, leaving rural communities up and down the country making do with speeds no faster than dial up.
In his 2011 budget the chancellor committed to ensuring the newly announced enterprise zones all had superfast broadband without saying what that meant and where funding would come from – we still do not know.
In October the chancellor found £150 million for mobile infrastructure, initially targeting voice not-spots, but imperceptibly the remit has expanded to include broadband service and it is now being delivered by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).
Then in the Autumn Statement came the announcement of super connected cities - £100 million for 10 cities with 100Mbits broadband.
Finally in last month’s budget, Osborne announced another £50 million for smaller super connected cities, as well as naming the lucky 10. My constituency of Newcastle was one of them.
So that is over a billion pounds of public money announced in dribs and drabs over two years targeting just about everything apart from a decent broadband infrastructure.
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