Britain's broadband questions
So now we all know about the UK's broadband strategy, don't we? Every community will get a digital hub so that by 2015 the UK has the best fast broadband network in Europe. Is that clear? Well, not exactly - it raises all sorts of questions so let's try to answer a few of them.
What is a digital hub?
As far as I can understand, this is going to be one of those green cabinets you see on the pavement with cables hanging out of them. The idea is that every community will get one of these cabinets, packed with fibre-optic connections to the net, even in places where the likes of BT and Virgin Media don't see a commercial case.
What is meant by every community?
When I spoke to a government PR man he used the term "virtually every community" - and made it clear that if you lived up a mountain you were unlikely to have one of these digital hubs outside your front door. But thousands of communities across Britain will now be able to bid for the cash to build their own fast network.
Where is the money coming from?
All of the £830m of public money that will be spent on this project over the next seven or eight years will come from the BBC licence fee. Some of it is the surplus from the Digital Switchover Fund, the rest from the licence fee settlement negotiated between the government and the BBC last month.
Who decides how the money is allocated?
The starting gun has been fired for local authorities, community groups, and companies big and small to start bidding for this pot of money. So there will now be a bit of a bunfight, and it will be the job of Broadband Delivery UK, a new quango, to decide between the competing claims. As the 2015 deadline for building Europe's best broadband network approaches, BDUK officials will find themselves under ever closer scrutiny from their political masters.
What's BT's role?
Before the election, the Conservatives were pretty sniffy about the company which still dominates the UK's broadband infrastructure, promising to bear down upon BT and force it to allow rivals access to its network. But today's announcement was full of praise for "BT's fantastic range of measures" which were going to do much of the job of rolling out superfast broadband. Smaller ISPs are now wondering whether they will really get a look-in, and are urging the government to do more to force BT to "unbundle" its fibre network.
What kind of technology will be used?
That will be decided by whoever builds out the local networks from those digital hubs. It could be fibre to the home, it could take advantage of new mobile spectrum which will now be made available, and in remote places it could be satellite broadband which fills in the gaps. The result is that there will not be a uniform service - some places will still get a slower connection than others.
What happened to that 2Mbps by 2012 target?
That Universal Service Commitment has been put back to 2015 - but with the promise that communities which have struggled to get anything more than dial-up speeds will then leapfrog straight into the fast broadband era. The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt says there was not enough money set aside by the last government to make it happen - Labour says it means some places will wait another five years for broadband of any kind.
How likely is it that we will build Europe's best broadband by 2015?
Ah, well it depends what you mean by "best". Right now, according to the Global Broadband study by Cisco and the Oxford Internet Institute, the UK is in 13th place in Europe, a long way behind the likes of Sweden and the Netherlands. And some figures released today by the OECD show the UK isn't even in the game when it comes to delivering fast fibre networks. But the governement says that it will use four criteria - speed, coverage, price and choice - to decide whether the UK has met its goal. It's unlikely that we will accelerate past the speedy Scandinavians, but the more competitive UK market, where prices are already low and choice is wider than in many places, may allow the government to declare that Britain is best by 2015.