The UK needs to “get on track” with high-speed next generation broadband, or risk being left behind, competitiveness minister Stephen Timms has warned.
Speaking at the Parliament and the Internet conference hosted by the all-party parliamentary communications group, Timms said data traffic was becoming “more intense”, sometimes stretching the infrastructure.
“We don’t want new digital divides,” he warned. “We want to be leading not left behind.”
UK broadband coverage had increased dramatically since Timms was e-commerce minister, five years ago, when broadband coverage in England was “neck and neck with Croatia”, he said. “I see it as key to UK competitiveness.”
But he pointed out: “Other countries are investing in new fibre-based infrastructure delivering considerably higher bandwidth than the UK.”
The UK had good coverage through other delivery channels, such as satellite communications, Timms said, adding: “Before too long the wider economy is going to need high speed broadband as well.”
The minister contrasted the UK’s lack of broadband offering speeds of more than 20 megabits/second with South Korea, where he said 90% of homes now had broadband connections offering 50 or 100 megabits/second.
The UK had “hardly any” fibre-to-the-home connections capable of delivering next generation broadband, OECD figures showed, compared with 46,000 in the Slovak Republic and 900,000 in the US.
“We need to get on track with high-speed broadband,” Timms told the conference. “It is one of the priorities for me.”
Britain’s widespread broadband coverage meant “we are not suffering a competitiveness problem today over next generation broadband”, but Timms noted that commercial applications requiring the new higher speeds were “not far behind”.
Virgin Media was already rolling out 20 megabits/second speeds to users and was testing 50 megabit/second speeds, while BT was upgrading its core network to 24 megabits/second.
But Timms said: “I’m not sure this is going to be enough to meet future demand for bandwidth.”
This was why the minister was convening a high-level summit next month “to look at widespread next generation access”, Timms said. The summit would also consider “whether or how” the public sector might intervene to push development along.
Last month, regulator Ofcom launched its own consultation on next generation broadband, looking particularly at whether the UK requires a nationwide fibre network.