Brits Press On With Broadband Plans

Britain’s new Conservative/Liberal-Democrat coalition government is pressing forward with plans to make the UK a so-called broadband society and has appointed a special minister to oversee developments.

Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Ed Vaizey has been appointed Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, and will oversee the implementation of the Digital Economy Act, which includes controversial rulings on digital copyright issues. He will also be responsible for government measures to stimulate the national rollout of broadband above and beyond the existing plans of the operators. (See BT Ramps FTTx Plans, Turns a Profit, Fibrecity Plans More UK FTTH, Virgin Preps 100-Mbit/s Broadband Launch, and Virgin Trials Aerial FTTx.)

The original countrywide broadband plans, which include making sure everyone in the Kingdom can get access to an Internet connection of at least 2 Mbit/s, were outlined by the previous administration as part of its Digital Britain agenda. They are now being taken forward by the new government, though with a different approach to funding the £1 billion project. (See UK Outlines Broadband Plan.)

The previous (Labour) government had initially been pushing for a 50p ($0.70) per month “broadband tax” on landline phone bills to support the rollout of broadband connections in rural and hard-to-reach areas, but this idea was dropped during the recent pre-election dissolution of Parliament. (See Britain's Broadband Tax.)

The Conservatives had opposed this levy and, now they're more-or-less in power, they have re-introduced their preferred broadband funding strategy, which could see part of the compulsory British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) TV license fee being ring-fenced to help pay for the rollout. The license fee is already helping to fund the UK’s ongoing and much trumpeted "digital switchover" away from analog TV.

A new document, "The Coalition: Our Programme for Government," spells out (albeit in quite vague terms) the new government’s intentions:

    We will introduce measures to ensure the rapid roll-out of superfast broadband across the country. We will ensure that BT and other infrastructure providers allow the use of their assets to deliver such broadband, and we will seek to introduce superfast broadband in remote areas at the same time as in more populated areas. If necessary, we will consider using the part of the TV licence fee that is supporting the digital switchover to fund broadband in areas that the market alone will not reach.

The suggestion that the new government will "ensure" that network operators allow the use of their assets will raise some eyebrows at cable player Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED), which has for a long time strongly resisted opening up its network to other service providers.

The Lib Dems, who had supported Labour's 50p levy idea, have now put their weight behind this revised funding plan.

Giving little away, a spokesperson for the BBC said: "We note the reference to the possible use of an element of the licence fee on broadband roll-out. We look forward to discussing this with the Government."

Vaizey, or the "Minister for Broadband" as we'll call him, has a background in law, PR, and political speechwriting, so he should be able to deliver some reasonable spin around the government's plans.

His duties are split between two government departments -- the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. His brief is broad: As well as being Mr Broadband, he is also responsible for museums, art galleries, and libraries.

Vaizey (whose name conveniently rhymes with crazy and hazy, for future reference), is clearly keen to be seen embracing new technology. He has joined the Twitterati, and has been regaling followers with updates such as "mowing the lawn."

— Paul Rainford, freelance editor, special to Light Reading

digits 12/5/2012 | 4:35:15 PM
re: Brits Press On With Broadband Plans

I'll have to lie down and ask for the smelling salts the day the U.K. becomes competitive (compared with other nations) in terms of its broadband capabilities.

And I don't expect the Conservative/Lib Dem plans to make much difference in the coming years as they'll be looking to private investment mainly to make this happen.

For me, it seems the best way to go is to have an independent, shared, state-of-the-art infrastructure that can  be shared by multiple service providers on a level playing field, with the ROI and amortization set at decades instead of investors feeling they need a short-term business case on the ROI.  That kind of thinking, though, is nowhere to be found within the corridors of power in the U.K. 

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