David Cameron has pledged that a Conservative government would seek connections to high speed broadband networks for all parts of the country within ten years.
The Tory leader set the target during a speech on the economy on Monday. He also said that more than half the country should have access to high speed broadband services within five years.
"In Britain we have some of the slowest broadband speeds in the developed world and when it comes to investing in next generation broadband networks, like fibre optics to the home, we're doing very badly compared to countries like Germany, Japan and America," Cameron said.
It's almost inconceivable that the latter target would not be met without any government action at all. Virgin Media will complete an upgrade of its cable network - which covers approximately 50 per cent of UK premises - to the DOCSIS 3.0 standard in the middle of 2009. To begin with it'll offer a 50Mbit/s downstream service, but the equipment is capable of more than 200Mbit/s.
BT has meanwhile allocated £1.5bn to roll fibre out to cabinets covering ten million homes by 2012. That's roughly 40 per cent of UK premises, and although there would likely be significant overlap with the Virgin Media network, between them the pair would easily beat the Conservatives' five year target.
A greater policy challenge is presented by the ten year target, especially when Cameron has ruled out government subsidies. Echoing the stance of the current Labour administration, formalised by the Ciao Report, the Tory leader said: "I am not talking about massive state financed investment - that would be extremely expensive for the taxpayer and it would also risk stifling the innovation that comes from private sector competition. Rather, the role of government is to facilitate, not deliver.
"It can do this by letting it be known that it will encourage and support the private investment required to develop the network."
He said the Conservatives would appoint "a leading public figure from the creative industries" to review how to encourage telecoms firms to provide better broadband to the whole UK, including sparsely populated regions where the return on investment is likely to be poor. The review will effectively act as a shadow version of the ongoing Carter Review, which it has been reported will recommend replacing BT's universal telephone service obligation with an industry-wide requirement to offer at least a basic 2Mbit/s broadband service to all.
Cameron hinted at collaboration projects to minimise the cost of public works, simplifying council planning procedures and the use of wireless technologies where laying fibre optics is impractical or uneconomical. He also mentioned the need to offer "regulatory security to investors", an allusion to BT's insistence it must have greater power to set prices on any new networks it is forced to offer access to wholesale.
All these measures are already under consideration by the Carter Review and Ofcom. As you were, then.
His full speech is here. ®