While providers are keen to pay for the provision of superfast, next-generation broadband to urban areas, they are a lot less concerned about the rest of the population who are, for geographical reasons, the least profitable – and this is where we think the government needs to step in.
For the second feature of our broadband series, I visited residents of Southam, near Cheltenham, to hear about their plight. I also spoke to Ed Vaizey, the broadband minister, to find out what the government is doing to sort out the problems that rural areas face.
Q: Why is the government not doing more to help rural areas?
A: We’re doing a lot to get broadband connections to people in rural communities – in fact, it’s one of our top priorities. We recently announced plans to roll out superfast broadband in remoter areas at the same time as more densely populated urban areas.
We’re now planning to carry out three superfast broadband pilots in 2011, which will allow us to test the commercial models and levels of support required to facilitate commercial deployment in rural areas. We’re also exploring ideas such as infrastructure sharing, which will encourage more commercial deployments.
Q: What plans does the government have to improve services?
A: There’s a lot we can do to help; Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), a team within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, has responsibility for delivering our broadband objectives.
BDUK has run an exercise to learn more about the potential for deploying broadband in commercially challenging areas and is currently assessing the areas to be selected for the superfast broadband pilots.
Q: What are the cost implications of rolling out improved broadband?
A: Building infrastructure is complex and costly; it requires planning and co-operation with a range of government agencies, private companies and communities.
The actual costs can vary by location and depend on factors such as geographic features and population density, and to avoid distorting future contract negotiations, it’s best to address the costs at the appropriate time.
Q: So who’s actually going to pay for your plans?
A: Our approach is geared towards maximising commercial investment and minimising public funding. We’re looking at what regulatory changes we can make to encourage further private investment.
If government intervention is needed, we have said that we’ll consider using part of the TV licence fee to provide assistance, and we’ve set aside money from the digital switchover help scheme’s underspend to improve the prospects for more private investment.
In theory, what Ed Vaizey says is great, and we applaud him for passionately arguing that getting broadband services up to speed in rural areas is "one of our top priorities". However, stripping away the political jargon, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the government is reluctant to spend any money on making this happen.
On the one hand, Vaizey admits that building infrastructure is "complex and costly" but, on the other, he says the government’s approach is all about keeping the public purse firmly shut and encouraging the broadband industry to cough up the cash.
We suspect it won’t be long before the government revises its "superfast broadband by 2015" target.