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Government's broadband plans criticised by peers

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The government's strategy for boosting broadband in the UK risks leaving many communities stranded due to a focus on speed over coverage of service, a House of Lords committee has warned.

In a report published today (July 31), the peers called for fast internet services to be viewed as a key national asset.

They also said that more should be done to close the digital divide between urban and rural areas, predominantly by setting up fibre hubs in local communities.

However, communications minister Ed Vaizey said that "a lot of public money" has been allocated to bringing broadband to rural areas as part of the government's goal of having the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015.

Critics have also claimed that the Lords report is "opaque" and lacks substance.

The Lords communications committee has been critical of the government's broadband plans in the past, and its latest report accuses the strategy of being misguided and posing "a very real risk" that some people and businesses will left with "inadequate access to the internet".

Despite praising the government's commitment to improving broadband in the UK, the peers feel that it is coming to the task from a "flawed prospectus" that is "preoccupied with the delivery of certain speeds".

Instead, the peers want ministers to focus on creating an environment where new internet technology can develop, enabling everyone to benefit.

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"The delivery of certain speeds should not be the guiding principle; what is important is the long-term assurance that as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK," they said in the report.

In terms of recommendations, the peers again called for the creation of a network of fibre-optic hubs, which would get fast broadband to local communities. This approach would focus on creating a fibre network in what is referred to as the "middle mile", meaning the "last mile" of connections to homes or businesses would be more manageable.

The peers also insisted that broadband should be viewed as a key national service, in the same bracket as railways, roads and energy grids.

"Our vision is of a robust and resilient national network linked primarily by optical connectivity, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community," said the report.

"This would allow diverse providers, large and small, to contribute to the reach and resilience of our national connectivity and allow all individuals to benefit from whichever services, including public ones, will run over it in time to come."

It added: "To realise this vision, we believe a reorientation is required in Government policy away from the absolute edges of the network and towards that part of it which brings fibre-optic closer into communities."

But Andrew Ferguson, editor of Thinkbroadband.com, said that consultants and industry figures involved in the government's Broadband Delivery UK project had already rejected the idea of fibre hubs.

He also said that the Lords report is "very opaque and deliberately avoids mention of specific speed targets".

"[The report] is critical of the current approach which means that some technologies that might help the final most rural 10% of the UK are being skipped as they fall below the speed targets," explained Ferguson.

"Of course as a report that has little risk of becoming policy, it is easy for the House of Lords to propose what some see as the ideal solution.

"The key points that hopefully will be taken on board are that the UK needs a longer-term view for broadband, as currently the only long-term driver is the EU 2020 targets (30 Mbps for all), with the UK government's ambitions ending in May 2015; fortunately some local authorities are planning for the period 2015 to 2020."

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