Fast broadband: An election issue?
I've been abroad on holiday for a couple of days, so apologies for the lack of blog posts. So what have I missed? Well the travails of Microsoft's IE6 browser continue, with pressure mounting on UK government departments that use it to upgrade. The merits and demerits of Apple's iPad continue to be debated at interminable length - I think I'll wait until it's actually on sale before taking another look. But what really interests me is the future of fast broadband in the UK - and its emergence as a possible election issue which could divide town and country.
At the weekend, the Conservatives unveiled their plans to ensure the rollout of superfast broadband - or "up to 100mbps to the majority of homes" by 2017.
Last summer, the Labour government outlined its vision in the Digital Britain report, now making its way through Parliament in the form of the Digital Economy Bill, which also sees superfast broadband reaching 90% of the UK by 2017.
Both parties concede that it is unlikely that the market will do the job on its own - though the Conservatives are hoping that allowing other operators to use BT's local network, its "loops and poles", will promote investment by companies like Carphone Warehouse in superfast broadband.
And each party is planning to use taxation - Labour from a landline tax, the Conservatives from the BBC licence fee - to take fast broadband to areas which the market won't reach.
Each has since argued that its plans are the ones that will put Britain in the broadband fast lane - and the Liberal Democrats are accusing both of indulging in fantasy economics.
Amongst what you might call the fibrenauts - campaigners for fast fibre-based broadband to every corner of Britain - there's delight that this argument has broken out now. As one of them put it to me:
"I told everyone that broadband would become an election issue and no-one believed me!! Mind you, it was about three years ago... LOL."
But if it is to be an issue it's one that will play best in rural areas, poorly served now by broadband and likely to miss out on the next phase of the revolution. And the rather unlikely revolutionaries leading the charge for rural fibre are at the Country Landowners Association.
They were critics of the government's Digital Britain report, welcoming the 50p levy on landlines, but warning that the report failed to understand the urgent need of rural business for universal high-speed internet access. They were sceptical too about the Conservative plan, warning that every rural home needed broadband now rather than having to wait until 2017, by which time "many rural businesses will either have gone to the wall or relocated to areas where fast broadband speeds are available".
And now news reaches me of an attempt by the CLA to rally support around the rural fibre cause before the general election. The association has sent out an email to a number of people and organisations inviting them to a meeting in London on 2 March, where a coalition to fight the cause will be formed. The email says:
"There needs to be a significant element of co-ordination for there to be any major success, both in terms of the Government's 2012 objective (commitment) and beyond to 2017. Therefore, it is our view that now is the right time to seek to pull together a national coalition of groups and individuals that can set and focus on a series of lobbying objectives."
So the fibrevolutionaries are massing and candidates in the upcoming general election, particularly in rural areas, will need to know where they stand on the funding of fast broadband.
Mind you, they will also be aware that more voters live in towns than in the country - and they may view the prospect of tax-funded superfast broadband rather more sceptically than their rural cousins. Like this gentleman, who contacted me this morning when I suggested that this might be an election issue:
"I strongly disagree that a private service like this should be an election issue. If they don't like it, they can bloody move."
Oh dear, not a polite start to the great broadband debate.