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Superfast broadband isn't good enough, say Lords

Plugging broadband blackspots is not getting enough attention -- and TV broadcasts should switch to the web, says a Lords committee.

The House of Lords might not be the first institution that springs to mind when you think about high-speed Internet access, but Peers are showing they're good for more than falling asleep in the chamber during debates -- by shouting about the importance of speedy broadband for everyone.

A House of Lords communications committee has criticised the government's broadband strategy, claiming the focus on boosting headline broadband speeds is coming at the expense of improving nationwide coverage, with the risk of worsening the divide between broadband haves and have-nots.

"There is a clear social cost of weak broadband performance in pockets of the UK," notes the committee in a report published today.

"The potential benefits of reducing this divide are inestimable, with effects on, among other things, the ability of individuals to work from home, on the ability of socially isolated people to stay in contact, and ultimately the ability of national and local government to provide public services, even to far-flung, remote communities."

The Lords committee also torpedoes the notion that broadband have-nots all live in the Outer Hebrides, or other similarly remote locations.

"We have found that [broadband have-nots] are located almost everywhere," the report notes. "This is because people without adequate broadband infrastructure are often surrounded by it."

The report quotes Ofcom stats that peg the coverage of basic 2Mbps broadband at 86 per cent of existing connections -- meaning 14 per cent of UK Internet users are stuck with embarrassingly sluggish speeds -- while superfast 30Mbps broadband coverage is estimated to be accessible by around 60 per cent of UK premises.

"There are striking regional variations: 94 per cent of premises in Northern Ireland have access to superfast broadband, but for Wales and Scotland only 30 to 40 per cent have access," the report notes.

The Committee's view is that access to broadband "should be considered a key part of our national infrastructure", much like roads and railways -- and therefore that it's too important to lean too heavily on companies like BT to roll it out, which is pretty much what the government's current strategy is.

"The danger that results from the lack of competitive pressure in the construction of the UK's broadband infrastructure lies in the fact that the government can easily find itself in thrall to the commercial interests of private enterprise, and therefore unable to direct broadband infrastructure in the wider interests of the UK," the report warns.

The committee report includes a bevy of recommendations for how the government should tweak its current strategy to eradicate the digital divide -- including building a network of open-access fibre hubs around the country, so that those on the wrong side of the digital divide are at least within jogging distance of a super-speedy line.

"Open access to these fibre-optic hubs would provide a platform for local communities and businesses to access the broadband provision they want in the short term, and to upgrade that access flexibly as needs evolve over time," the committee notes.

Commenting on the report, committee chairman Lord Inglewood said in a statement: "Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government's strategy lacks just that -- strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government's policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need -- for profound social and economic reasons -- for the decades to come.

"Barely an aspect of our lives isn't touched in some way by the Internet, and developments look set to continue apace in the future," he adds. "A whole host of services will increasingly be delivered via the Internet -- including critical public services -- and without better provision for everyone in the UK this will mean that people are marginalised or excluded altogether."

The committee has also indulged in a spot of digital blue-sky thinking -- suggesting that, ultimately, TV should be exclusively broadcast over the Internet, freeing up digital spectrum for the sole use of mobile services.

The report notes: "It is likely that IPTV services will become ever more widespread, and eventually the case for transferring the carriage of broadcast content, including public service broadcasting, from spectrum to the Internet altogether will become overwhelming.

"We recommend that the government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the Internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare."

Analyst Matthew Howett of Ovum was unimpressed with the report. "With nearly 50 recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met," he says, "it's likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream."

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