Last month, I suggested the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should be renamed the Department for Culture and Communications Chaos. So it’s nice to find that a House of Lords Committee agrees with me.
Of course they did not quite put it like that. They were far more discreet, as does their lordships credit.
But basically yesterday’s “Broadband for all—an alternative vision” is a damning indictment of what this government and this department have achieved, or more accurately, not achieved.
To recap, we have no Communications Green Paper, no 4G services, no universal broadband and probably only one bidder for the billion-pound superfast broadband subsidy, which everyone knows is not enough to actually bridge the burgeoning superfast digital divide.
And if there hadn’t been state aid issues with the subsidy to begin with, then there certainly are now the procurement process appears to be delivering the worst of all possible outcomes, a fragmented monopoly.
Their lordships gently point this out. The government, they say, “have proceeded from a flawed prospectus.. . there has been an insufficient focus on properly thinking through questions of first principle, and an absence of an all-encompassing vision of pervasive broadband connectivity as a key component of national infrastructure.”
The report basically accuses DCMS of focusing too heavily on headline speeds and headline goals (‘best broadband in Europe’ anyone?) and not recognising broadband as a critical part of our economic and social infrastructure. Fourteen percent of us still do not have decent broadband.
At times their lordships’ guard does slip somewhat.
In discussing the choice of 24Mbps and 2Mbps as target speeds they say “it is not wholly clear from Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future why these speeds were chosen, but it is generally understood that they were not entirely arbitrary.”
An object lesson in how to damn with faint praise. The department must be pleased to be judged not entirely arbitrary in its decision making, just chiefly arbitrary.
In respect of the Rural Communities Broadband Fund’s funding requirements, their lordships say: “In our view, it is ludicrous to expect all remote communities to be able to provide the levels of funding required to build broadband access networks in their areas.”
They also highlight the way in which the government’s ‘not entirely arbitrary’ speed targets seem to be excluding innovative technologies such as white spaces.
“Curiously, by mandating a specific speed target, with the intention of pushing fibre—and by extension, enhanced capacity—deeper into the network, the government have in some cases ensured that communities reliant on more experimental, innovative technological solutions will not get any enhancement at all. In short, because their plans do not meet the government’s aspirations in full, they will be condemned to nothing.”
I also recommend ‘Box 4’ which sets out the reasons why they consider the BDUK process non-competitive. I am sure EU State Aid officials will be reading it with interest as they consider whether to approve the BDUK framework.
Their main recommendations are more government action to ensure fibre hubs in every community, and open standards on the critical superfast broadband infrastructure. It was on the latter point that I gave evidence to the Committee, as described in an earlier blog.
They end by saying: “We do not pretend that any of this is easy, and we welcome the government’s policy focus on broadband, but we believe that the UK can and must do better.”
Certainly things could be worse. We have cheap and competitive current generation broadband, where it is available, and a competitive wholesale and retail market in mobile services in 2G and 3G. BT is investing billions in rolling out its Infinity superfast broadband network.
But we had all that two years ago. There has been no progress under this government.
When it comes to mobile, Britain is currently falling behind over 30 countries that already have 4G capacity.
In March, Apple caused an outcry when its iPad supported 4G in the US but not in Europe. We now wait to see if the iPhone 5, out in the UK this autumn, will support UK 4G services, or whether Apple will again ignore the UK’s 4G potential.
The lack of investment in UK 4G by a major device manufacturer is a telling indictment of the UK’s position on the global 4G stage. There are companies, in particular Orange and O2, who have both the spectrum and the funds to deliver 4G services this year, if they are given the go-ahead.
The Department for Culture and Communications Chaos must heed their lordships’ advice, show it understands the importance of critical communications infrastructure, and do much, much better.
Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for innovation and science, and MP for Newcastle Central.
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