Broadband for all is a worthy but pointless goal

FOR ALL the hype that preceded Lord Carter&rsquo;s Digital Britain Report, its central recommendation can be summed up in four dreary words: Slow broadband for all. It wouldn&rsquo;t be so bad if the meagre 2Mbps connection wasn&rsquo;t being part-funded with a planned &pound;6-a-year telephone line tax; this will mainly be collected from people who live in urban areas, and who have no problem getting commercial broadband connections. <br /><br />The 1.5m or so who live in areas with no broadband access have made a choice. Along with the upsides &ndash; the scenery, the tranquillity, the slower pace of life &ndash; there are major drawbacks, not least poor infrastructure. Is anyone proposing an intercity train to the Isle of Skye? Should the M8 be extended into the Highlands? To suggest that city dwellers pay for the extension of broadband to these areas is just as absurd. <br /><br />The report&rsquo;s misguided focus on access for all has meant that more pressing questions about the UK&rsquo;s urban broadband network have been left unanswered. According to figures from the OECD, the average advertised download speed in the UK is 10Mbps, slower than 11 other countries, including Japan (93Mbps), France (51Mbps) and South Korea (80Mbps). These are just the speeds that internet service providers advertise; some estimates put the actual average speed as low as 3Mbps.<br /><br />If the UK has any hope of being a relevant player in the future, it needs to replace its ageing copper telephone lines with a next generation network, built using superfast fibre cabling. In Japan, 95 per cent of the population will have access to a 90Mbps fast fibre connection by 2010, while fast connections will reach 75 per cent in South Korea. Aside from a few pilots and a handful of Virgin customers, no one in the UK will come close by 2010.<br /><br />In fact, we could have a similar network without extra taxation, as South Korea shows. It&rsquo;s a much-repeated myth that the South Korean network was publicly funded, but liberalisation provided the key to success. In the 1990s, the Korean government made the newly-privatised telecoms industry one of the least-regulated in the world. Speeds of 100Mbps and high take up speak for themselves. <br /><br /><strong>MERGER RULES</strong><br />Meanwhile, regional newspaper owners like Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and DMGT will be disappointed that Lord Carter didn&rsquo;t recommend the relaxation of merger rules in the industry. If they had been changed, it would have paved the way for scores of title-saving mergers across the country, one of the only things that could stem the precipitous and sad decline of regional news. <br /><br />According to a recent Ofcom study, most of the 1.5m who live in inaccessible areas don&rsquo;t even want broadband. Ironically, the government is happy to stand by and watch the destruction of local papers, something that these communities actually care about, while forcing everyone to pay for something they don&rsquo;t. <br /><br />