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Digital Britain Disappoints

5:45 PM -- The final "Digital Britain" report published today looks just as bland and uninspired as the first draft released in January. (See Britain Botches Broadband.)

Anyone hoping for the British government to wake up and smell the Darjeeling and come up with a decent national broadband plan will be disappointed to be sure. (I might have been the only one daft enough to hold out hope for such a thing.) So, here's the government's long-awaited ultimate broadband access goal: 2 Mbit/s to every household by 2012.

Of course, that's the minimum speed the government wants for everyone, and more than one in 10 households in the U.K. currently can't get that. The government's goal is to make sure everyone can get at least 2 Mbit/s, and in that context of universal broadband service, the report believes the U.K. leads Europe.

And the government has found some spare change under the sofa cushions (so to speak) to fund the universal service goals. The government says it will contribute £200 million of public funding from a digital switchover help scheme that has not yet been spent.

To encourage the rollout of even faster broadband (the report talks of 50 Mbit/s) to most homes, the government wants to put a 50 pence per month levy on all copper phone lines, which would go into a next-generation fund. The funds would be available on a tender basis to any operator wanting to deploy high-speed broadband services and would serve as a partial subsidy.

The levy, which would amount to £6 per year, would raise anywhere between £150 million and £175 million, according to one estimate.

As for the mobile operators' part in Digital Britain, they are expected to play a big role, but the report does not resolve a long-running operator dispute over spectrum that is holding up the allocation of 4G licenses in the U.K. The report only proposes that all five 3G operators can keep their licenses indefinitely, which is intended to give them more certainty on their network investments.

But the report does not clear up the mess over 900 MHz refarming (which would open that frequency to 3G and 4G services), 800 MHz spectrum ownership caps, and the long-overdue 4G spectrum auction.

The government has "laid out a process of Guiding Technical Arbitration on the 2G liberalisation" [i.e., refarming], according to the report, which sounds as if the government is taking steps to resolve the deadlock. But whether that's necessarily a good thing is not clear.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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