Spending Review The UK's coalition government now plans to invest an extra £250m to bring "superfast broadband" to 95 per cent of Brits by 2017. It also finally confessed today that its original 2015 target will not be met.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander made the pre-election pledge in the House of Commons this morning as part of the coalition's proposal to up total infrastructure spending by £3bn to £18bn during the course of the next Parliament.
"We are shifting the government's policy horizon to match the modern economy's horizon ... we are putting long term priorities before short term political pressures," he added in a downbeat speech that rarely hit any high notes.
Alexander repeated the assertion regularly tossed around by ministers that "fast online access for the whole country" is essential to keeping Blighty's economy moving.
He told MPs:
This government has already committed £1.2bn of public investment in fixed superfast broadband ...
It’s absolutely crucial, if we want to rebalance our economy that it’s not just the biggest cities that have access to the fastest broadband. The UK already has better broadband coverage, usage and choice than Germany, Italy, France and Spain.
But we want to go further. So I can announce today that we are providing a further £250m to ensure that fixed superfast broadband reaches 95 per cent of the population by 2017. And we will work closely with industry to ensure that at least 99 per cent of the UK population has access to superfast broadband - whether that's fixed, wireless or 4G - by 2018.
The Treasury's report - Investing In Britain's Future [PDF] - that accompanied Alexander's statement to the House says that the £250m government investment is to be matched by local funding.
And, significantly, it offers this snippet regarding the future of the Broadband Delivery UK project steered by Maria Miller's Department for Culture, Media and Sport:
Broadband Delivery UK will be given greater operational freedom and an enhanced delivery focus, and will be equipped with the commercial skills it needs to deliver a broadband programme that will now extend to at least 2017.
That plan was actually leaked to the national press earlier this week, after it was revealed that a damning internal report made it clear that the BDUK project needed to be completely overhauled.
Next month, the National Audit Office is expected to criticise the DCMS over competition and transparency concerns relating to the £530m government subsidy set aside for the BDUK scheme up to 2015.
Miller's project has already been flagged by the Major Projects Authority as being at risk of not being delivered on time.
And - for the first time, though this has been obvious for some time - the government appears to have confessed that it will miss its target of bringing speedy broadband to 90 per cent of Brits by the end of the current Parliament. The Treasury stated in today's report:
On current plans nearly 90 per cent of homes will have access to fixed, superfast broadband by 2015. [Our emphasis.]
The Treasury, of course, did not offer an exact figure. But telecoms giant BT - which is the only bidder scooping up any of the BDUK cash in rural areas - has repeatedly said with nearly every local authority contract win that its work won't be completed until 2016.
All of which might explain why the government is gently proposing that faster broadband connections will reach 95 per cent of the country's citizens by 2017. It doesn't want to admit that it has missed its target, so instead has shifted the goalposts out of this Parliament.
As for the £250m pledge to be piled on top of the £530m bumpkin broadband fund, the DCMS confirmed to The Register where the cash will be plucked from:
The £250m announced today for superfast broadband is taken from the £300m set aside from the licence fee. The other £50m remains set aside.
Way back in 2010, then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he would take £300m from the BBC licence fee's digital switchover budget to help pay for faster broadband connections to reach the final 10 per cent of the UK's population.
Just yesterday, taxpayers hoping for faster broadband connections in 22 cities across Blighty were dealt a crushing blow after the government scaled back its ambitions by skimming off cash from the £150m Urban Broadband Fund pot to help pay for small biz digital skills. The rest of the money (up to £90m) set aside for broadband will now be spent on vouchers that businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be eligible for.
The DCMS disagreed with claims that it had "watered down" its original plans. ®