Page last updated at 13:45 GMT, Monday, 22 March 2010

Mixed reaction to fast net pledge

Robin on spade handle, BBC
In remote places, grants could encourage DIY cable-laying projects

Labour plans to wire up UK homes with super-fast broadband have met with a mixed response.

Experts want more details about what "super-fast broadband" means and how the plan would be implemented.

Decisions must be made about the technology to be used to ensure it can support the applications that future web users will want, they say.

Grants may be appropriate in remote areas where people are keen to lay their own cables to their own homes.

High costs

The pledge to take super-fast broadband to every home was made by Gordon Brown in a speech in which he called high-speed web access "the electricity of the digital age".

The Conservatives say they have made a similar pledge to accelerate the speed of the net links that Britons enjoy.

"It's a positive sign that all the major political parties see that next-generation broadband is going to be significant for the UK economy over the next decade," said Antony Walker, chairman of the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG).

"All the parties recognise that for next-generation broadband to be universally available there's likely to be a need for some level of intervention," he said.

The intervention, he said, would involve government money as well as policy and regulatory changes.

Mr Walker said he would like more details about the timing and character of the intervention Labour was planning.

"The key thing for us will be developing the right mechanisms for making the most efficient use of that money when you choose to intervene," he said.

In 2008, the BSG produced a report that looked at the costs of taking different types of fibre-based broadband to all UK homes. Prices ranged from of £28.8bn for the most expensive option down to £5.1bn if fibre was only run to street-level cabinets.

The vast majority of that cost, the report said, would be incurred in rural areas.

"There are trade-offs you have to make between how much money you are willing to spend and that needs to be based on the value generated for the economy," said Mr Walker.

Speed trap

For Tim Johnson, from broadband analysts Point Topic, the details of the technology picked and how it is deployed were key.

Video camera, BBC
Reliability matters for many video applications that use the web

Mr Johnson said super-fast broadband typically meant 25Megabits per second (Mbps) or more. But, he said, headline speed was only the starting point for such technologies.

"Speed by itself does not mean much," he said, adding that more important for future services was quality and reliability.

"You do not need 25Mbps end-to-end for video," he said. "You need 3Mbps end-to-end for video."

Mr Johnson also questioned whether the pledge to get high-speed broadband to all actually meant every home in the UK.

"There's almost always small print and what it tends to mean in some cases is not much more than 90%," he said.

While high-speed broadband can be taken to more than 90% of the UK for the money political parties have pledged, getting beyond that will take some work, he said.

In remote areas it might mean helping people get cash so they can dig their own ditches to lay cables or let suppliers bid for contracts to see who can do it for the lowest subsidy.

Mr Johnson said Labour also needed to think about how to get people in rural areas connected up to higher-speed broadband, perhaps by giving out grants to DIY projects.

Service history

As well as talking about super-fast broadband, Mr Brown outlined plans to put more government services online. One idea involved a webpage for every citizen that detailed the interactions they had with the state.

"It seems like a positive move," said Dominic Campbell, director of the Future Gov consultancy which advises on ways to use web technology to improve the delivery of public services.

"It's very much moving beyond the e-gov era we had in the late 90s," he said, "which put transactions online, form-filling and very basic stuff like that."

Despite this, he said, there were worries about how the changes would be implemented.

There's far too much rhetoric and not enough understanding and open implementation
Bridget Harris, Leadership Centre for Local Government

"My concerns are about the cost of this type of thing and it's still not being built with the help of the bottom-up social innovation projects."

Mr Campbell said the last year had seen a huge growth in citizen-led groups that are keen to get at data and transform services themselves.

He wondered about other brakes on change.

"Direct.gov.uk is so in the pocket of major technology suppliers and the large consultancies and I wonder how fast and the changes could be made and how expensive it might be."

He also said a future in which more data was released involved greater change than had been pushed through so far.

"At this point in time data.gov.uk is releasing non-personal data which is interesting and valuable," he said. "What it does not do is really address fundamentally in terms of of customer service to the average man on the street that is looking to get a public service delivered more effectively."

Bridget Harris, a consultant at the Leadership Centre for Local Government who helps politicians understand technology, was sceptical about the action that would come from the speech.

She said it sounded very much like a central government approach in which it tells every citizen how something should be done.

"How are they going to do it? Please don't tell me its going to be some massive IT implementation because that's not going to work," she said.

The sheer complexity of the computer systems run by local and central government would make any attempt to link them up extraordinarily complicated, she said.

Ms Harris said if politicians believed in open government as much as they speeches suggested they would make big changes to the way their parties operate.

"Do they really believe in what these policies imply and that they want to share the political space? In which case they have to look first to their own backyards."

"There's far too much rhetoric and not enough understanding and open implementation."



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