Broadband USO Debate [15/12/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

People consider broadband to be the fourth utility. Just as they turn on a tap and get water, flick a switch for electricity or turn a dial for gas, people’s lifestyle and expectations have been geared to broadband. It is not sold as a luxury, it is a requirement for entertainment, education and trade.

Few people have any real concept of the journey or technology behind water, electricity and gas before it is presented as a consumer product. It is no different with broadband. Consumers may not know the technical details of how these utilities work, but they know that dirty water is unacceptable. Broadband that is too slow fits into the same category. All the technical babble belongs to the technicians. They use it, maybe ironically, to speed up conversations. The customers, in their house or workplace, do not want excuses or apologies, they just want broadband to do the job.

We have progressed from speeds of 56 kilobits per second, which allowed us to access the first basic web browsers. We have transitioned to the introduction of wi-fi services and the rapid growth of users accessing the internet via mobile devices. We no longer live in a world where families crowd around the wireless to listen to “The Ovaltineys”. Families expect to be able to watch a movie, surf the internet, interact on social media and play games with people across the globe, all at the same time.

In 2006, BT introduced broadband services of up to 8 megabits per second. Now many homes and businesses can access 200. Ten years from now in 2026, after another 10 years of progress, will we be able to say that our technology has advanced faster than in the past 10 years? It may be difficult to predict, but we need to identify what the internet will be used for in the future.

Will the internet be used to control a greater range of household items that integrate with each other, or perhaps to experience the next generation of augmented or virtual reality? Predicting the future is not easy. Back in the 1960s, I was promised we would all have jet packs. To my eternal sadness, that did not happen. [Interruption.] I definitely did not get mine. We can only make educated guesses at some of the uses, but we can categorically guarantee that 10 megabits per second will not cut it. It shows a staggering lack of ambition and absolutely no foresight.

Scotland is proposing 30 megabits per second, Europe is working towards 30. Up and down the UK, we are still enlarging roads built in the 1960s because we never foresaw the amount of traffic that they would carry. We need to be clear sighted and understand that the broadband strategy we are developing now will affect our capabilities in 20 or 30 years.

With our current level of knowledge, we have no excuse not to build a super-broadband highway that can carry superfast broadband to every user. Importantly, it must be built so that it can be shared by suppliers and is easily accessible for upgrades. The problem is not in the laboratories, it does not lie with the technicians or scientists, it is about digging up roads. A utilities tunnel that carries all utilities and can be partitioned off so that each is separate would help.

How many times have constituents said, “Last week the electricity board came and dug up the street, the month before it was the water board, now it’s broadband. Don’t you guys talk to each other?” The answer is no, they do not. Historically, our approach has been too ad hoc, too focused on the immediate job in front of us instead of the wider needs. Over time, that lack of strategic planning has been very costly. Can the UK Government honestly say that a USO of 10 megabits is ambitious? I think we can do better. That is why I want the UK Government to take responsibility. Simply facilitating greater competition within the market will not necessarily lead to all the results we want on the ground. Many of my constituents are not getting the best possible broadband infrastructure because service providers have deemed that certain areas are not commercially viable.

My constituents expect results, and they are impatient at being left behind. A broadband USO should be something exciting—a policy that represents technological innovation and an ambitious drive towards the future. If we settle for just 10 megabits per second, I am sorry to say that the UK Government’s USO will be remembered only as an “unsuitably slow option”.