Britain Makes Commitment to Universal Broadband by 2012

Britain makes a commitment to extending Internet broadband to rural portions of that country by 2012 in a development project that parallels the United States.

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A shrinking economy has prodded the Brits to consider a huge investment in broadband. As in the States, the plan in Great Britain is to spend a good deal of effort and money extending fast Internet connections to places that aren’t connected — particularly in the British countryside.

“Our digital networks will be the backbone of our economy in the decades ahead,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a speech in London last week, sounding ever so much like U.S. President Barack Obama. “Our digital networks will be the backbone of our economy in the decades ahead. It is as essential to our prosperity in the 21st century as roads, bridges, trains and electricity were in the 20th… Even at this difficult time for the economy, we will not turn our backs on the future.”

In a report, Digital Britain, issued last week, the nation’s communications minister set a goal of having every household with a broadband Internet connection by the time the Olympics come to London in 2012.

Britain already has a “universal service obligation” for telephones. Communications minister Lord Carter wants to extend that obligation to broadband.

As in the U.S., broadband connections fall off as one moves farther away from the nation’s cities. Sixty percent of the households in Great Britain have a broadband connection, about the same as in the U.S., France and Japan. Some 10 million homes don’t have broadband and of those 1.75 million households in mainly rural areas are unable to obtain fast Internet connections.

Prime Minister Brown’s commitment to universal access and Lord Carter’s slightly more specific plan (Digital Britain) have raised many of the same objections, praise and concerns as have the still-vague plans in the U.S. to extend broadband to underserved areas and to enhance the speed of existing service. Rural residents have been swift to question the British plan in ways that will sound familiar to those in the States.

Britain’s Country Land and Business Association (a membership organization for owners of land, property and businesses in rural England and Wales) quickly embraced the government’s “change of mind” concerning rural broadband, but pointed out that Brown’s plan “fails to say how rural areas are going to get connected.”

“The CLA has vigorously campaigned for affordable broadband in all rural areas in Britain,” said Douglas Chalmers, a Country Life director. “The fact that we have got so far is testament to our lobbying, as up until very recently the assumption was that everyone who wanted this service could have it. We continue to say that without broadband, rural business remains uncompetitive and the rural-urban digital divide is increasing as the pressure to communicate electronically comes from all directions.”

The CLA has asked why Lord Carter’s plan doesn’t provide significant public financing, and the organization asks “what happens between now and 2012 when ‘broadband for all’ is rolled out? Is the Government prepared to accept that until investment is made, some rural businesses will be unable to perform to their full potential, and that some families will remain educationally and socially disadvantaged?”

CLA President Henry Aubrey-Fletcher said that “to remain competitive, the rural economy has to be set on the same footing as the urban based economy. At present, given the lack of available broadband in rural areas, this is simply not the case. Given the importance and length of the report, we are disappointed the Government has failed to understand the frustration felt by those who feel they are disadvantaged by having no affordable broadband capability.”

Rural advocates weren’t the only ones to find fault with the British proposal. Tech writer Natasha Lomas saw no “revolution” in a broadband strategy that only promised speeds of up to 2Mbps, about the average for British broadband users today. The problem isn’t lacks of access she writes, echoing arguments in the U.S. Nearly every home in Britain has access to broadband, but most of those who don’t have the service don’t want it for financial or cultural reasons, or “simply a lack of interest. And there is evidence to show those on lower income and in ethnic minority groups are less likely to be signed up.”

And, of course, the plan will be expensive, and so an article in The Observer is headlined, “Digital Britain will benefit all, but who will foot the bill?”

That may be less of a problem in the States, where both the House and Senate have adopted plans that provide billions of dollars for broadband extension.

Meanwhile, Britain and the U.S. continue along parallel tracks. We’ll see which route is the fastest.

 

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