Chancellor Philip Hammond is expected to commit a lot of money to broadband infrastructure in tomorrow’s budget statement. Some £400m will be on offer as long as private investors can match the amount.
The government agreeing to ensure that two million premises will be covered by the next generation of broadband has been given only a cautious welcome by commentators. “The target of 2 million premises covered by this money is very reliant on the level of funding the smaller operators can add,” said Andrew Ferguson, editor at independent advice site thinkbroadband.com. “Or as is the case with B4RN and come other community projects a lot of volunteer labour, since for Fibre to the Home it is less about the cost of the technology and more about the time it takes to deploy. The other factor is where you are deploying, in dense urban environments a cost per premise passed can be as low as £400 (for blocks of flats it may be even lower) but studies show rural areas increasing to £2,000 due to the greater distance between properties.”
Neil Fraser, head of space and comms, ViaSat UK, went further: “If we don’t engage the whole country, we are at risk of a two-tiered internet system, where those areas with fast services reap the benefits in terms of education, opportunity and investment, while those without broadband are left further behind.” Others were more welcoming; WiredScore, for example, simply welcomed the investment and acknowledged that there was some way to go.
In other words, many commentators are saying thanks but you need to know what you’re doing and simply throwing money at this may not be the right strategy. “On the world stage pushing the UK further up the league tables may now be seen as politically important, but the Government must not neglect those with slower broadband and while we do expect a chunk of the 2 million premises to be those with under 10 Mbps speeds, the fund is not explicitly aimed at them,” added Ferguson.
Ghosts of broadband past
The other thing that has to be acknowledged is that previous governments have “form” in terms of promising broadband coverage but not quite getting there. The first decade of this century is the only precedent as broadband didn’t previously exist at scale, and it was littered with examples of rural areas simply falling between the cracks and not getting access. That’s one thing when the technology hadn’t really been established so wasn’t essential, it’s different now.
Efficient broadband facilitates people working remotely and a lot of companies and public sector entities predicate their business models on being able to use remote workers. In fact many deliberately use premises too small to accommodate the entire staff, so remote working is essential.
Also there are businesses that take advantage of people who have moved to remote areas for lifestyle reasons but want to get back into work – and can only do so because of broadband. If the infrastructure starts to fall behind, a substantial tranche of talent will be deprived of access to the employment market, and the potential workforce loses a lot of talented people.
The government’s intent to upgrade the broadband infrastructure is to be welcomed. The question of whether it will deploy the money efficiently is as yet unanswered.