Jeremy Hunt hits back at broadband rollout critics

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has hit back at criticism he received from the House of Lords over his rollout plans for superfast broadband in the UK.

The Lords report said the government had focused too much on speed, and should rather allocate its resources towards getting everyone in the UK connected to broadband. However, Hunt said this week that the government’s ambition is now to have not only the best broadband network in Europe by 2015, but for it to specifically be the ‘fastest’.

“[When] the Lords Committee criticised me this summer for being preoccupied with speed, I plead guilty. And so should we all. Because we simply will not have a competitive broadband network unless we recognise the massive growth in demand for higher and higher speeds,” said Hunt.

“But where their Lordships are wrong is to say my focus is on any particular speed: today’s superfast is tomorrow’s superslow. Just as the last government was wrong to hang its hat on 2Mbps speeds, we must never fall into the trap of saying any speed is ‘enough’.”

Hunt highlighted that the average speed in the UK has increased by about 50 percent since May 2010 and in the last year the average speed increased from 7.6Mbps to 9Mbps, overtaking France and Germany.

He also reiterated the government’s plans to rollout ultrafast broadband to 10 cities in the UK, which is coming out of a £150 million urban broadband fund and will deliver speeds of 80 to 100Mbps.

The government is still considering how to allocate the £300 million that has been made available to broadband investment from the later years of the BBC licence fee, but has said that it is likely to introduce plans that aim to increase the availability of broadband to above 90 percent by 2015.

The Lords Committee also suggested that Ofcom should force current infrastructure owners to provide open access to dark fibre at the level of the cabinet, and active and passive access, together with rights to install and collocate active equipment on relevant links, at the level of the exchange.

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This would allow ISPs to install infrastructure and compete on ‘the last mile’, rather than compete at a brand level by renting BT’s infrastructure, which is the current option that is available.

There is a growing concern that the broadband delivery process that has been set up by the government has favoured incumbent BT, as a number of suppliers have pulled out of the bidding process and it is the only one to have secured funding from local authorties.

However, Hunt also hit back at this and said that the House of Lords is "wrong" if it thinks that the "sum of the government’s ambitions" is just fibre to the cabinet (FTTC).

He said: “Where fibre to the cabinet is the chosen solution it is most likely to be a temporary stepping stone to fibre to the home – indeed by 2016 fibre to the home (FTTH) will be available on demand to over two-thirds of the population.

"But the reason we are backing fibre to the cabinet as a potential medium-term solution is simple: the increase in speeds that it allows – 80Mbps certainly but in certain cases up to 1 gigabit - will comfortably create Europe’s biggest and most profitable high-speed broadband market.”

The alternative, Hunt said, is for the state to build a fibre to the home network, which he believes would cost more than £25 billion and take up to a decade to do.

He added: “We will get there far more cheaply – and far more quickly – by harnessing the entrepreneurialism of private sector broadband providers than by destroying their businesses from a mistaken belief that the state can do better.”

The UK government has said that it hopes to have the best, and now fastest, broadband network in Europe by 2015, and has committed a minimum of £730 million up until 2015 to support the rollout. The money is being distributed to local authorities that bid for funding via a framework created by governing body Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).