Westminster View: Rural, superfast broadband: an unattainable goal?

The government's plan for superfast broadband across the UK is under-funded and under-resourced, and it's a cross-party issue, argues Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for innovation and science.


Every week I travel up and down between Newcastle and London, through the beautiful English countryside of County Durham, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire. There are some stunning views, but also worrying ones. As I study the wires hung from telegraph poles across fields and villages, I wonder exactly when the government's mixed-up broadband policy is going to succeed in delivering the universal broadband that all these homes, businesses and farms need?

Labour promised to deliver 2Mbps broadband to everyone by the end of this year, using the money left over from the digital switchover. There was some grumbling about this, particularly from those who said that when South Korea was heading towards 100Mbps per home, 2Mbps was hardly a real challenge.

In the end, the new government abandoned that pledge and instead went for one which was vaguer but, for some at least, more inspiring: the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015.

Having spent 23 years working in telecoms I have a natural scepticism of anyone offering 'the best' without defining what that means. And that scepticism was re-enforced when I learnt that this was going to be achieved with the same amount of money as for the original 2Mbps pledge. Whilst the upgrades to the local loop network necessary for 2Mbps were costly enough – around half a billion pounds – delivering superfast broadband to every home would be much more expensive even without an exact definition of 'superfast'.

Despite what fibre evangelists might say, there remains significant market uncertainty around superfast broadband, which means we don't know how far the market will go in delivering it. That's an issue when it comes to European Union state aid rules, and also when it comes to negotiating with BT about what subsidies are required where.

The need for broadband is not a party political issue. It is often the rural, more Conservative constituencies, which have the worst broadband coverage. Right now, when we are desperately trying to find growth in the economy, the business potential of rural economies needs to be promoted – we all agree on that. There is an almost equally desperate need to ensure we have a digitally-literate population, from the youngest to the oldest, so that we can compete on the global stage as an economy and as a country.

Therefore the recent news that two-thirds of local authorities are not on track to meet the government's target inspires only the vaguest temptation to say 'I told you so.' It's much more important to start getting it right.

BDUK (Broadband Delivery UK) needs more and better resources – it is trying to negotiate one of the most complex procurement contracts in our country's history, on behalf of all the local authorities across the country. It needs more in-house expertise and fewer short-term consultants.

The contract needs to support standardised interfaces. We face the real possibility of a patchwork of local, superfast networks that cannot speak effectively to each other, or to the rest of the world. Proper provision for wholesale access and systems compatibility must be made.

Government also needs to make sure that the vested interests in the telecoms industry do not result in a monopoly of superfast broadband provision. The next generation of broadband consumers deserves to benefit from choice and competition, just as this one has. That way superfast broadband can be a real platform for innovation and economic growth.

But all this won't address the short-term challenge of decent broadband so that rural businesses can sell their products on the web, farmers can comply with Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) requirements for online document filing, the elderly can benefit from telecare and the young post their homework online, to mention just a few of the increasingly important broadband applications.

That, I'm afraid, is a gap that is going to persist, and which is going to be more and more painful for rural residents - and those who represent them.

Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for innovation and science, and MP for Newcastle Central

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