Digital Britain Report gets muted support

Good but minimum speed broadband isn't enough

The Digital Britain Report has received wide spread support from IT-focused organisations, but many feel that its core recommendation - a minimum speed broadband available to all - doesn't go far enough.

Yesterday, the Government published the final Digital Britain report, which sets out its vision for the digital economy.

The Communications Management Association (CMA), whose business members spend £15 billion in the communications market annually, welcomed the commitment for universal broadband.

"A near-term target of only 'up to' two megabits per second (2Mbps) is disappointing, until you realise that it's a universal service obligation target to be reached within 30 months, and the UK is the only country to commit to such a concept," said Carolyn Kimber, chair of the CMA.

Kimber said the way the government promotes communications services will be vital to the UK's economic recovery.

She also welcomed the expanded role of the regulator Ofcom. Under Digital Britain's recommendations, Ofcom will be given a duty, "which is the communications equivalent of the letter from the Governor of the Bank of England, to alert the Government to any significant deficiencies in the coverage, capability and resilience of the UK's communications infrastructure and to report every two years on the state of that infrastructure," said the report.

"We endorse the intention to expand the role of Ofcom in the area of network security and availability," said Kimber. "For too long the regulator has turned its back on security and survivability issues, claiming they are a matter for law enforcement or the supplier."

However, she complained, the mobile sector "seems reluctant to collaborate for the common good".

"This is a unique opportunity - unlikely to come round again in the foreseeable future - for the entire industry to pull together, and we can't afford to mess it up," she said.

In order to fund its universal broadband commitment, the report proposes a £6 per annum fee for all fixed line telephones in the UK.

John Higgins, director general at Intellect, the UK technology trade body, said the £6 a year levy "shrinks in comparison to the hundreds of millions of tax payers' money that other countries are finding for their networks."

Higgins also praised the commitment to a digital switchover of public services, once current broadband reaches the whole population. "Making the internet the first port of call for government services could reduce the costs of government administration, while making services more flexible and accessible," he said.

The Broadband Stakeholder Group, an advisory group on broadband, was equally positive.

"The challenge is to find the intervention sweet spot, not so much as to be heavy-handed and not so little as to be ineffective. This intervention could be just enough to incentivise investors," said Antony Walker, chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group.

But David Thomas, head of communication regulation, at KPMG said: "Residential consumers, SMEs and teleworkers are likely to be disappointed by the lack of ambition for universal broadband speeds of only two megabits per second.

"This low target is not surprising, given the lack of available Government funding due to the current economic environment and the industry view that customers will be unwilling to may much more for broadband."

Matthew Howett, senior analyst at Ovum, was also low-key in his praise for the initiative. He said the commitment to 2Mbps universal access "is still quite significantly below the current average headline speed available in the UK and in this respect a digital divide will continue to exist."

He also said that the £6 a year levy to make up the Next Generation Fund appears "ill thought out". The model follows a similar approach to that taken in Australia, which the government eventually abandoned, Howett added.

Michael Phillips, product director of BroadbandChoices.co.uk, said the 2Mbps commitment is "a pretty underwhelming aspiration given the rest of Europe already experiences over 6Mb as an average".

Phillips said the £6 levy is "a bold move" but said the report "has left any timescales for implementation - and the term of the proposed levy - frustratingly vague."

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