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End broadband arms race, says think tank
A new report, The Superfast and the Furious, from Policy Exchange says that politicians have become overly focused on broadband speeds. The internet is central to modern life, and next generation fixed and mobile broadband are unquestionably vitally important for the economy. But the case for spending any more taxpayers' money to subsidise very fast connectivity is weak.
The report suggests an end to government subsidies for broadband infrastructure once current commitments are reached in 2015. Instead the government should focus on helping the 10.8 million people not online - half of whom are over 65 - and do more to help small businesses make the most of the opportunities presented by the internet.
New polling of 2,000 people and 500 businesses by Ipsos MORI for Policy Exchange found:
- Only a third of people (31%) are confident they could choose the best broadband deal for their household. Overall, price and reliability matter to people as much as speed
- Two thirds of people (64%) think that good basic broadband coverage for the whole country is more important than chasing very fast speeds in some areas at the expense of others
- Four in five people (79%) think that every household should be able to have access to the internet, but only a quarter (24%) think it is fair for people in remote areas to pay more
- People are split (49% vs. 49%) on whether it is more important to invest in connectivity, even if it means more masts and street cabinets, or to preserve neighbourhoods and the environment, even if this constrains broadband speeds and coverage
- The vast majority of small businesses have a web presence (79%) but still only a minority are ready to take bookings (34%) or accept payments (36%) online
The report says that the government should see out its current spending plans to extend superfast fixed broadband to 90 per cent of the country, to accelerate the roll out of 4G wireless networks, and to deliver on the 2Mbps universal service commitment for 2015.
However, once this programme is completed, the priority for any further use of taxpayers' money must be on empowering consumers and businesses to make best use of the internet. Combined with a relentless focus on effective, sustainable competition, this will ensure that supply and demand are free to drive the private sector broadband investment and innovation that people want.
The report makes a number of other recommendations:
- Introducing a streamlined planning regime for local authorities wanting to accelerate the rollout of fixed and mobile connectivity for their communities
- Being more relaxed about developing government digital services that require a broadband connection, as part of a broader drive to get people engaged with the benefits of the web
- A stronger role for the Minister responsible for broadband, with a more explicit remit to promote economic growth opportunities from mainstream use of the internet
Chris Yiu, author of the report, "Successive governments have been right to invest public money in basic broadband connectivity. The government's current spending plans will extend fast broadband to the vast majority of people. Any further public money should be spent on making sure we are putting this to good use. It's far from clear that your taxes should help to pay for me to have an even faster connection.
"There is no doubt that broadband, both fixed and wireless, makes a major contribution to the economy. But the right person to decide how much speed your family or business needs is you – not the government.”
Graham Walker, CEO of Go ON UK, the UK’s Digital Skills Alliance, "The UK has strong digital foundations, but is not maximising the full economic and social benefits offered by digitisation. To reap benefits for all in the UK, we need universal broadband access and greater investment in the digital skills and capabilities of individuals and businesses.”