Broadband for all? Or the entrenchment of a three tier divide?

This morning, the Communications Committee released its report on the government’s broadband strategy. The report, “Broadband for all – an alternative vision“, was rather mixed to say the least. There was some welcome criticism of the government’s existing strategy as well as some worrying suggestions about what the future might hold for broadband in the UK.

In terms of the criticising the government’s strategy, the committee were particularly unimpressed by Vaizey’s focus on speed rather than spread. Indeed, the (Tory) chair of the committee raised these concerns on the Today programme this morning (Monday). Rather than focus on the provision of super fast broadband for those that can afford it, the committee suggested that it would be more appropriate for the strategy to focus on widening access. A reasonable and welcome suggestion given that there are parts of the country without access at all. It doesn’t seem particularly radical to suggest that maybe we should ensure everyone has access before we start improving the speed of the connection.

Under a section entitled “Principle 1: Reducing the digital divide“, the committee argues that policy should be driven “above all” to (paragraph 64):

“…arrest and ultimately eliminate the digital divide, creating the opportunity to unleash its social benefits for all UK citizens.”

It goes on to highlight the two distinct divides that need to be addressed: access and skills (or first and second order effects).  The two together are absolutely fundamental to the concept of the digital divide.  A focus purely on access would not reduce the impact of the digital divide unless measures are taken to ensure that the equipment can be used “effectively”.  It is encouraging that both aspects of the divide are referred to in the report as policy-makers seem to have a fixation with access alone.  However, the inquiry itself focuses on the issue of access rather than skills, so whilst the need to address skills is referred to, it is not a significant component of this particular report.

The report goes on to outline the benefits of closing the first order divide (paragraph 65):

“..the potential benefits of reducing this divide are inestimable, with effects on, among other things, the ability of individuals to work from home, on the ability of socially isolated people to stay in contact, and ultimately the ability of national and local government to provide public services, even to far-flung, remote communities.”

Furthermore, it goes on to note the evidence provided by Suvi Lindén, former Finnish Communications Minister and Special Envoy for the Broadband Commission for Digital Development (paragraph 66):

“We just cannot afford to provide the same level of care as we are doing now and that people are used to having in Finland. I have quite often said that, for some municipalities that have these elderly people living, for example, 80 kilometres from the centre of the municipality, ‘It is cheaper for you to build up the fibre to this old lady than to take her to live in the city centre in the nursing home.’ It costs what it would cost for the municipality to have her living in the public-provided nursing home for two months.”

However, the report goes on to criticise existing government policy (paragraph 67):

It is not clear, however, whether the Government’s strategy will eliminate the divide between those communities who can and those who cannot enjoy these benefits. This is because, on the one hand, there is no guarantee that the Government will meet their targets; and on the other, the targets themselves are inherently divisive. In concrete terms, they set a course for a UK in which “virtually all homes will have access to a minimum level of service”[55] and in which “superfast broadband should be available to 90% of people in each local authority area.”

As a result (paragraph 68):

Existing government policy will, in effect, widen the digital divide in terms of the first order effects (access).  The relentless focus on providing high speed internet is not the answer to the issue of the digital divide.  Indeed, the likely impact is a widening of the divide and the entrenchment of a three tier divide (I say entrench as there as still some who connect using dial-up – although that figure is rapidly diminishing).  A three tier divide because there will be those that can afford high speed access, those that can afford broadband and those that cannot afford either option, thus developing a two tier internet service.  Those that have access to the high speeds will be at a significant advantage to those who have an internet connection but cannot afford to upgrade.  And as for those without a connection at all, well, they will be left even further behind.  Indeed, the reports hints as much in its final conclusions (paragraph 251):

However, this doesn’t seem to have prevented Ed Vaizey from announcing that superfast broadband will be available to 90% of the UK by 2015.  Presumably in an attempt to distract attention from the criticisms of the report, Vaizey told the Today programme:

“We have set ourselves a target that by 2015, 90% of the country will have superfast broadband,” said Vaizey. “Generally speaking most people define that around the 35 megabits a second (Mbps) speed but we have said that 100% of the country should have access to 2Mbps. To put that in context, for example, if you want to watch the iPlayer on your computer you would need about 1-1.5Mbps.”

He went on to add that he believed that this target would be met, contrary to the conclusions of the Lords committee.  This determination to provide faster broadband comes despite the fact that there are 5.7 million households without an internet connection [PDF] at all.  It is clear that, at present, the focus should be on those without an internet connection at all – something that the closure of public libraries (who play a key role in addressing this divide) will not help to address.

Whilst rightly critical of government strategy, however, the committee also came up with some unusual recommendations for future policy.  In paragraphs 141-143, the committee recommends:

141. We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare.

142. As and when this occurs, and particularly if Public Service Broadcasting channels begin to be delivered primarily through the internet, the case for a USO (Universal Service Obligation), echoing that for television and radio, will become, in our view, significantly stronger.

143. While we do not support the introduction of a USO at present, we do believe that broadcast media will increasingly come to be delivered via the internet. As and when that happens, and particularly in circumstances where this applies to PSB channels, the argument for recommending a USO becomes stronger. The Government should begin now to give this active consideration.

This seems at odds with what is odd with the nature of the digital divide as noted later in the report.  As has been previously established, cost is asignificant inhibitor in having an internet connection at home.  The transfer of all broadcast content to the internet would result in a number of issues that would need resolving.  What would this mean for the licence fee?  But, more importantly, what would this mean for those who cannot afford an internet connection at present? Such a transfer would rely on superfast broadband which the committee argues would be out of the reach of many.  How would we ensure that moving broadcast content online would not financially penalise those who cannot afford such a move?  Would it be subsidised by the state?  Or would the old divides be further reinforced?  It’s hard to argue, given the existing state of the digital divide, that this is a desirable move.

There is no doubt that the committee’s report delivers welcome criticism of existing government strategy and underlines the importance of reducing the extent of the digital divide.  It is clear that the current strategy would entrench the divide and, in effect, entrench a three tier divide – those with superfast broadband, those with a standard broadband connection and those without a connection at all.  However, the proposal to move broadcast content online is troubling.  The implications for such a move are many and there will be particularly concerns in terms of forcing the public to pay for an internet connection to watch broadcast content.  When many are put off from a broadband connection due to the related costs, it is not clear what the outcome would be should such a move take place.  What seems clear is that the digital divide will not only remain a problem that needs tackling, it is likely to get very much worse and increasingly complex.