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Government's broadband strategy is misguided, says Lords communications committee

The government is too preoccupied with broadband speeds and not enough with its geographical reach, the Lords communications committee has said, warning in a report that the UK could get left behind if it does not refocus its Internet infrastructure strategy.

Last year, the government outlined plans to deliver super-fast broadband to all UK communities by 2015. In this year’s budget, unveiled in March, Chancellor George Osborne announced that 10 cities, including London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff, would be become “super-connected” with Internet speeds of 10Mbps or greater.

But the strategy prioritises the wrong things, peers said, arguing that closing the “digital divide” between urban centres and rural communities should take precedence over speed.

“Government policy on broadband should be driven, above all, by the social benefits it can unleash, and the need to arrest and ultimately reduce a damaging digital divide,” they said.

Some 14 per cent of the UK currently accesses the Internet on speeds of less than 2Mbps, which the government considers to be the minimum speed at which the Internet can be used “reasonably effectively.” That means around eight million people do not have access to usable Internet, making the UK 25th in a ranking of global connectivity speeds.

There is “a very real risk that some people and businesses are being left behind, that inadequate access to the internet and all its benefits is actually afflicting their daily lives," the committee said, calling for the government to treat broadband as essential national infrastructure.

“Just as there is national planning for the national, regional and local hubs of our transport network, so there should be national planning for a communications network of local, regional, national, and internet exchanges,” they said.

The government should devise a 10-year plan focussing on the creation of a network of fibre-optic hubs accessible to all UK communities, the committee said.

Peers also called for the government to consider a shift that would see broadcast content being delivered over the Internet, freeing up the spectrum for other uses, like mobile phones. The government should begin planning for an eventual switchover, though that could, admittedly, be years in the making, as broadband would have to be faster and more entrenched before the possibility of Internet-only television could be seriously entertained.

Despite the critical tone of the report, the committee praised the government for its emphasis, albeit misguided, on broadband delivery.