It would appear that the previous Labour Government still believes its 2 Mega bits per second Universal Service Commitment for 2012 was the best course of action for the country according to recent comments by Harriet Harman the Shadow culture secretary.
"There is a growing digital divide between the haves and the have-nots, between the urban areas with the super-fast broadband and the rural areas with none.
This, from the party which said it cared about rural areas. In Labour's Digital Britain strategy, we guaranteed 2Mb broadband speeds to the whole country by 2012.
The Government can talk about ultra-fast, and super-fast, hyper-fast and mega-fast, all (it) likes but what is happening is the creation of a digital underclass – those in rural areas, the unemployed and older people already so squeezed by this Budget and this Government.
Broadband access for many will be made all the more difficult by cuts in libraries. According to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, almost 600 libraries are threatened by this Government.Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman
The previous Government created the Broadband Delivery UK team in March 2010, giving it just over 18 months to implement a 2 Mbps USC if Labour had been re-elected, which looking at the time line since current BDUK projects started looks extremely unlikely to have been possible. Additionally in terms of funding the original scheme to use a 50p phone line levy to fund the USC, was abandoned a month before the General Election, leaving the BDUK with around £200m from Digital Switchover funds to implement the 2 Mbps USC.
The 2 Mbps USC would benefit roughly 10% of the population who currently connect at a slower speed than this, and Wales with its Broadband Support Scheme has been offering grants that effectively give people £1000 to getting a better broadband service. Given the deadline then the only feasible solution would have been satellite based solutions, with perhaps some roll-out of fixed wireless solutions.
It is unclear how much getting 2 Mbps to all is even worth in terms of reducing the digital divide, there is lots of evidence that while 2 Mbps is functional internet access for 2011 and 2012, given another couple of years it will prove to be insufficient. As we can see now, there will be by the end of 2012, 50% of the UK with access to 100 Mbps, and parts of the UK with access to 300 Mbps all the way up to 1 Gbps.
There is one school of thought that suggests, the roll-out of faster broadband should be delayed across the UK, until something like the 2 Mbps USC has been implemented. Alas while a noble idea, we suspect this would end up with the UK being forever stuck in the slow lane, with the commercial operators reluctant to invest in network upgrades due to government interference.
Jumping forward to the present, rather than looking back nostalgically, it is interesting to note that the current Conservative/LibDem targets are still to be met, with the BDUK pilots not producing anything visible yet, and no major progress expected until late 2013. Lots of investment has been talked about, but with the same amount often re-announced every few months, there will be lots of confusion over what is actually being invested. The most visible activity at present is local authorities taking surveys to try and show demand for services to attract the best tenders, the distinct danger here is that as in the past many people are keen to see a service improvement, but when asked to pay the extra £5 to £10 a month they soon vanish.