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Tories promise 'super-fast' broadband

By Benjamin Cohen, Channel 4 News

Updated on 31 January 2010

The Conservatives plan to deliver "super-fast" broadband within seven years. They would use part of the BBC license fee to pay for it, citing the demands of the iPlayer. Benjamin Cohen writes.

Computer cables as the Tories set out their latest plans for UK broadband. (Credit: Getty)

Both the Conservatives and Labour have said they want to ensure 100Mbps broadband connections in homes and offices across the UK by 2017.

They have the same objectives, similar motives and identical language but, it seems, very different methods.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne told the BBC's Andrew Marr show earlier: "In the 19th century we built the railways, in the 20th century we built the motorways.

"In the 21st century let's build the super-fast broadband network that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for Britain."

Last June, Gordon Brown wrote in The Times: "Just as the bridges, roads and railways built in the 19th century were the foundations of an industrial revolution that helped Britain to become the workshop of the world, so investment now in the information and communications industries can underpin our emergence from recession."

The government has made two clear commitments in regard to broadband.

One is that every home in Britain should have access to broadband at 2 Mbps by 2012, partially funded by the Digital TV switchover surplus fund (money that was to help elderly and disabled people switch to Digital TV, that wasn’t needed).

The other that was to levy a £6 a year tax to ensure that 90 per cent of the country can get next-generation broadband, generally considered to be 100 Mbps, primarily because the government is allocating some of the surplus fund to regional news on ITV.

For more on the plans for broadband Britain
- The need for broadband speed
- Is your broadband fast enough?
- Budget broadband promise too slow?
- Digital Britain
- Benjamin Cohen on Twitter

The Conservatives always called the broadband tax a "blunt instrument" and had suggested that if the surplus fund were not spent on broadband, it should be returned to license fee payers.

Their policy aims to break the final parts of BT's monopoly and open up ducts, sewers telephone poles and dark fibre (unused cables) to other providers.

They say this has worked in Singapore and South Korea, both of which have significantly faster broadband than the UK.

The Tories would also offer reduced interest rate loans to companies willing to bring superfast broadband to rural areas. This strategy has already worked in France.

I've heard this before, at behind-closed-doors lunches with shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and BT and Virgin senior management.

There was friendly but quite clear disagreement between the Conservatives and BT on this issue. But the party has not publically adopted this policy until now.

Mr Hunt said: "If Britain's digital and creative industries are to become world beaters they must have a proper communications infrastructure.

"We are currently one of the slowest countries in the developed world for broadband. With the Conservatives we'll become one of the fastest. High speeds will be available not just in our cities but across the rural areas that have been left behind for too long."

"These regulatory changes will create the right conditions for sustainable growth and ensure that the digital sector plays a leading role in a competitive, balanced economy."

In response, Labour's Stephen Timms said: "Labour have already announced measures for rolling out broadband across the country - and the Tories have opposed the plans to make that happen."

The Liberal Democrat culture and media spokesman Don Foster said: "This announcement shows once again the fantasy world of Tory economics.

"Anyone can promise the earth - what matters is how you pay for it.

"All independent research shows that the market simply cannot provide high speed broadband in all parts of the country in the short term without investment.

"Hints that the license fee payer will be hit are the closest the Tories come to explaining how they intend to pay for this."

BT has issued a statement insisting it is no longer a monopoly and while other companies do not have access to poles, ducts and other infrastructure, they do have access to telephone exchanges.

However, BT bosses say they are willing to discuss access issues, but question whether it will bring super-fast broadband to rural areas.

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