Page last updated at 08:48 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 09:48 UK

Digital Britain countdown begins

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The long-awaited Digital Britain report, which will lay out the UK government's strategy for broadband and digital content is due out later today.

It is widely expected to recommend a minimum speed for broadband, with a pledge to bring all households up to 2Mbps (megabits per second) by 2012.

It is likely to back the technologies by which this can be achieved.

It will also make recommendations on internet piracy and ways to safeguard copyright in the digital age.

The BBC has been told that Lord Carter - the author of the report - has estimated that there are some 1.7m homes that would need getting up to speed under the government's 2Mbps universal service commitment (USC).

Some think this is a conservative estimate. A study commissioned by the BBC suggested that some three million homes currently have speeds of 2Mbps or below.

Mobile solution?

Much of the full report will be dedicated to finding the solution and here the battle is on between mobile, satellite and traditional fixed line technologies.

Graphic of a house

The BBC has learned that the Digital Britain team has held frantic last-minute talks with the UK mobile operators trying to sort out a deal which would see firms such as O2 and 3 contribute to the government's USC.

In return mobile operators are asking for changes in the way the radio spectrum is divided up.

But some, including it seems Lord Carter himself, do not see mobile as the whole solution.

Satellite broadband firm Avanti's chief executive David Williams met Lord Carter a few weeks ago to discuss the Hylas satellite which his company is due to launch at the end of the year.

"Lord Carter acknowledged to me that mobile cannot provide a substitute for fixed line. It is great for e-mail and browsing on the move but bad for data usage at home," he revealed.

Research from broadband communications firm Epitiro recently found that the average download speed achieved with mobile broadband was just under 1Mbps.

At 0300 this average rose to 1.8Mbps, illustrating that contention issues - how many people are using the service at any given time - plays a big role in limiting speed.

Satellite could be a solution for some and costs are set to fall to as little as £15 a month.

Avanti's Hylas satellite would be able to provide 2Mbps broadband to 350,000 rural homes and if the go-ahead is given for the launch of two farther satellites that would increase the reach to two million.

BT will obviously play a big role in filling in the so-called notspots.

It is currently testing a new technology in Inverness known as BET (Broadband Extension Technology).

It believes BET could solve one of ADSL's biggest problems - that speeds get slower the further away from the telephone exchange people live.

Anyone living more than 4km from a telephone exchange is unlikely to get speeds above 2Mbps. For those in rural areas or even in the suburbs this has been a huge frustration

BET has the potential to provide reasonable speeds on lines up to 17km away from the telephone exchange and could fill 90% of the UK's notspots, said a BT spokesman.

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It will cost hundreds of pounds to upgrade each line though and it is unclear how much public money the Digital Britain report will put on the table.

Most think that some of money set aside for Digital Switchover - some £250m - could be earmarked to see the USC rolled out or even used to launch an education campaign to persuade the 30% of the UK population currently offline completely to change their minds.

Some critics have been disappointed that the interim report focused on 2Mbps broadband rather than looking to faster, next-generation solution.

"The widely expected two megabits per second universal service commitment, while a big improvement for those who have no affordable broadband service now, or a slow one cannot be expected to be relevant within three or four years," said Andrew Ferguson, editor of ThinkBroadband.

"We had hoped that the USC would be used as a way of kick starting next generation solutions in areas of the UK where commercial realities means firms are not likely to provide a service.

The report is likely to make mention of next-generation access, with a policy framework for how faster services can be rolled out and the setting up of an association to make sure community fibre schemes work together.

There is unlikely to be any public money available though.

Illegal content

'Universal Music chairman Lucian Grainge says failure to reduce illegal downloading could destroy established media.

The Digital Britain report will also look at new ways to pay for the digital content that more people are consuming and Lord Carter has hinted that content providers, including the BBC, could be asked to contribute to the costs.

Internet service providers are especially keen on the idea.

"Content owners like the BBC can't expect to continue to get a 'free ride'. They will need to make a fair contribution to the huge costs of bandwidth to deliver their iPlayer programmes," said a spokesman for BT Retail.

The Digital Britain report is also likely to address the issue of internet piracy.

The government has all but ruled out using three strikes law - which would offer a couple of chances for persistent net pirates to stop downloading illegal content before they were removed from the network.

Virgin Media chief executive Neil Berkett says consumers must be offered a viable alternative to illegal downloads.

The then-culture secretary Andy Burnham said at the beginning of the year that cutting people off was not the government's "preferred option".

Many agree. "It is a bit counter-productive to the rest of the Digital Britain report which is all about getting people online," said Roger Darlington, an adviser to Ofcom.

Of concern to many is how much the report will be taken onboard by any new government formed after a general election.

"All in all, dare one suggest that the Lord Carter report is an exercise in appeasing critics, but one where no-one will commit to spending real amounts of money to push the UK into the forefront of the digital content world," said Mr Ferguson.

"The feeling is that while the public is starting to say broadband is a utility, many with power are simply paying lip service," he added.



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