Rory Cellan-Jones

Brown and fast broadband

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 5 Jan 09, 15:21 GMT

So Gordon Brown's plan to create 100,000 jobs might well involve massive public investment in next-generation broadband. The Prime Minister told the Observer that such a project could be the modern equivalent of the huge programme of public works undertaken by the Roosevelt administration as it tried to lift the USA out of the depression in the 1930s. Here's the key quote:

"When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous times - and those were anti-recession measures taken to help people through difficult times - you could [by comparison] talk about the digital infrastructure and that form of communications revolution at a period when we want to stimulate the economy. It's a very important thing."

It may be very important, but what is far from clear is just how much public money for a new fast broadband network the PM is talking about - and who would get it.

fibreopticcablesThere is now widespread agreement that the route to a high-speed, future-proof network is through fibre - and that means putting fibre-optic cables right into homes across Britain. The cost? Well it depends who you believe, but the Broadband Stakeholder Group reckoned it could be as much as £29 billion.

There are plenty of small-scale fibre projects up and running - from plans to run fibre through the sewers to community broadband groups which are trying to make sure remote parts of Britain are not left out. Perhaps they will find it easier to get grants.

But it looks as though there are only two companies with the scale to take a fibre network right across the UK - BT and the cable firm Vigin Media. Here is where any public sector involvement gets devilishly tricky. I am sure BT and Virgin would be very happy to accept a few billion from the government, but BT in particular might well prefer another option - light-touch regulation. After all, the firm has already hinted that it would be happy to pour billions into a next-generation network if only Ofcom would be somewhat more relaxed about letting it make a return on that investment. BT's rivals, however, will be warning against the dangers of using government money to give even more muscle to the biggest player in the market.

Then there is the fact that once you declare that the "digital infrastructure" is a vital public service, everyone will want an equal stake in it. When broadband is a purely commercial service, companies can argue that they would love to deliver it to every nook and cranny in Britain - but their shareholders won't stand for it. Once the public sector is involved, every household may come to see fast broadband - like free healthcare - as a right, not a privilege. In short, then, finding the public money to pump into fast broadband might be the easy bit. Designing the pumping mechanism will be a lot harder.

Meanwhile, a cautionary tale about promises of publicy-funded broadband. I'm writing this in San Francisco, where I'm covering Macworld. As a broadband addict, keen to update my status on various social networks and send the odd blog post, I've been roaming the streets in search of wifi. It is less easily available and more expensive in this high-tech city than you might think. San Francisco's mayor came up with a plan back in 2004 to provide free wifi to the whole city. But, after a lot of ins and outs, that plan was scrapped in 2007 amid doubts about its financial viability. So the Prime Minister might do worse than give Mayor Gavin Newsom a call to see if he has any tips on the economics of public broadband.


  • Comment number 1.

    If I, as a rural taxpayer, am paying tax to fund a new universal broadband service, then I expect to get the same level of service as an urban taxpayer.

    If the government of the day wishes to decrease my tax, to reflect a poorer level of service, that may also be acceptable.

    But I object to paying tax to fund urban fibre broadband if all I'm getting is shoddy wireless.

    Never mind the bandwidth, feel the latency.

  • Comment number 2.

    Britain's internet infrastructure really does need updating, but there's things to worry about when the government gets involved. Would they want to start controlling what travels across the network? Government mandated "fair usage" or possibly the content rating system that was suggested lately.

    I don't think the public should accept tax money being spent or used on broadband if it would give the government extra powers over it.

  • Comment number 3.

    The simple short-sighted approach to public sector intervention in fibre is indeed to simply hand the cash to BT, Virgin, or both, and oblige them to deliver a minimum to every citizen that wants it. By taking this approach the government will miss one of the single biggest opportunities of the century, and also contradict their own rhetoric (OK, nothing new there). By using the funding more cleverly to empower local communities across the UK to own and control their own fibre infrastructure, Gordon will create a much richer and more sustainable telecoms infrastructure, delivering far wider socio-economic benefits than are achievable simply by lining the pockets of BT/Virgin shareholders. It's a tougher ask, a bigger challenge, but with a concomitantly larger pay-off. I know which option I prefer. (

  • Comment number 4.

    It is shocking we are still talking about this!

    This should have been done in the 1980's!

  • Comment number 5.

    hi all, I work within the telecommunications industry and having read this article I have to say its the first good thing ive heard come from Gordon Brown in a long time.
    It’s a shame I can see it not being carried out though.

    With regards to a few of the comments above, I have to say I disagree with a few comments.

    Firstly it would not have been possible to deliver such a network in the 1980's, fibre was way too expensive, not to mention at that time there was not the same demand we have today or the technology to run it.

    And with regards to communities running their own networks, I can’t see that being at all possible for one who is going to install and maintain it? Where would the equipment to run it be stored safely and in the right conditions? I am afraid empowerment is a nice concept but not very practical if you want a reliable network which will work nation wide and indeed internationally.

    As far as rural communities are concerned their best bet would be if BT was to get the job. Because I am quite sure BT has an obligation to provide a service to every household in the country I am sure if the government was to give BT funds to install fibre a condition would be that it has to be to every household, so the taxpayers are treated equally, as they should be!

    Virgin only target areas in which they see the largest return in their investment, and currently only run a small percentage of their network on fibre, despite advertising a fibre network!

    To conclude I think this development is an excellent idea and would have many benefits, personally I feel giving the job to a company such as BT would be our best bet as they have the skills, equipment and knowledge to pull it off. And as Roy said in his article, they are very heavily regulated so I am sure with the proper planning it could be achieved. Let’s hope Mr Brown sees this through.

  • Comment number 6.

    Optical Cable may have been more expensiv eback in the 1980's but mosyt other cost's involved in this sort of prject were much much cheaper back then. Overall if the Government had been doing it's job properly then we would already have an Optical UK and it would have cost much less than £29Billion that is muted here.

    Workforce, company contract value, hired asset's, beaurocracy, strength of Sterling,... they are all far more expensive today than 20-30 years ago.

    It is always more expensive to wait a few decades than getting something done even if the product is more expensive early in it's life. As usual... our Governments let us down once more, BT wanted to do it in the 1980's but (and you may even remember this matty84) the Conservative Party believed that BT was abusing its position as the dominant global telecomms power of the world. Frankly put the Tories were wrong and ended up ruining BT... they are not even a blip of the size of power and efficiency they once were without Politics coming in and destroying it!

  • Comment number 7.

    This is one of the best things I've heard over the past few months. With the current job cuts at BT and Openreach we need something like this to kickstart our workstack again. Over the past week we'v seen our workstack drop so theres no work in by dinner time and with lads getting the push into other parts of BT and sacked for daft reasons we need a hand bringing BT back to half the machine it was (before ofcom destroyed it). I would be happy as an engineer to be fibre trained and work as many hours I could to get FibreToThePremises. As for people complaining about tax increases, how many people are you housing on farcicle benefits and what not? Everyone who pays tax cant reap an equal benefit its doesnt work like that. So lets hope Gordon pulls his finger out and gets something rolling soon as there 25,000 engineers who want to join me!

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think that fast broadband is another nail in the coffin for TV. There are so many people turning their backs on TV in favour of spending time online, especially at YouTube.

  • Comment number 10.


    I cannot see people dumping BBC HD, BBC One, ITV or Sky Sports to watch a game of football on the internet, even if it is optical.

    The internet will get bigger obviously, but TV will always dominate the living room for entertainment. It's simplicity is the key to continued success.

    It must be noted that sales of Digital ready TVs are far outstripping sales of new broadband connections and computer sales. And this is considering that that morwe poeple already have TVs than computers.

  • Comment number 11.

    Congrats to Gordon Brown and his ideas about fast broad-band access...
    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 12.

    Why are the terrestrial broadband companies (who already turned their backs on those "too far" from their networks) even being considered for subsidy by taxpayers when there is a perfectly good technology to bring broadband everywhere in the UK right now. It's called satellite. There is no need for a subsidy. Or, if there is going to be one, can the satellite providers have some too? For 3.5 billion quid we could give free 2MBs to over 2.4 MILLION UK homes with free digital TV thrown in (so that's the rural digital switchover problem and the Freeview relay transmitter issue solved for nowt on top.

  • Comment number 13.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 14.

    @largeramsden - "It is vital that we start to roll out optics to all major cities and town in the country. I for one am dependent on Broadband to do my job"

    Now this isnt fair to be honest. Major towns and cities should not automatically take priority and this is the kind of idea that aoakley (#1) is opposing to for good reason.
    As a Londoner i am all for higher broadband speeds etc but also as a person who frequently spends a fair bit of time in the East Midlands visiting friends i count my blessings when i come home to my "5mbps-capable" internet connection.

    There was an article from one of Lincolnshires local papers about how businesses that are in need of a decent internet connection can not thrive in that area and i can see why.

    Although Lincoln is a lovely city and a marvel to explore, it is more of a Historical city than a Major city and seems to have been overlooked by the powers that be.
    But with everyone concerned about only their own interests they dont realise that a lot of what they "have to put up with" would be a blessing and a miracle to others.

    So my point would be. Whatever happens with regards to all the planning and hype happens but the businesses should plan their ideas with fairness in mind, not just potential profits and greed. After all there is a lot of money to be made but surely a few months delay wouldnt hurt in the interests those less fortunate

  • Comment number 15.

    oh, just an addon...

    i used Lincoln as an example but there are people/towns/cities/villages worse off than them also, i only used that as an example because its something i have dealt with first hand whereas people such as #1 would possibly have had to deal with connections even worse than that

  • Comment number 16.

    Whilst i'm very much in support of improving the UK's digital infrastructure, i do hope there will be a greater emphasis on improving rural broadband connection speeds over developing faster urban connections.

    Many rural areas of the UK are getting a very poor deal with their broadband services, after months of trial and error i've finally managed to find a suitable payg broadband provider that actually allows me to connect at a reasonable speed. Obviously this is not ideal for home usage, but our options are somewhat limited.


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