Broadband is ‘key’ to Britain’s digital future

April 21, 2009 at 11:48 pm 1 comment

by Gemma Pritchard

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, took questions in the House yesterday.

A detailed debate about the Digital Britain review which is currently being undertaken by the Government ensued.

The Secretary of State confirmed that the final report, which is an analysis of the digital economy and the quality of communication in Britain, is due to be published this summer.

David Jones, the Conservative MP for Clwyd West, was critical of the Government’s broadband speed targets which have been proposed by the report.

Mr Jones said: “As the Secretary of State knows, the interim report proposes a universal service commitment to broadband speeds of a minimum of 2 megabits per second from 2012. However, given that speeds of up to 15 Mbps are regularly available in urban areas, does he acknowledge that that is a very unambitious target that is likely to push rural areas even further behind urban areas by 2012?”

Mr Burnham was quick to point out that this was primarily a matter for his colleagues at BERR (the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), however he did say: “In any universal service obligation it is important that all parts of the country are able to benefit; indeed, that is the purpose of such a commitment.

“It has an historic potential to ensure that, as with postage and telephony, all citizens of this country have access to the highest quality communications infrastructure —and that applies to all parts of the United Kingdom.”

Mr Burnham faced further scrutiny from John Whittingdale, Conservative MP for Maldon and East Chelmsford, and the Chair of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Mr Whittingdale said: “Will the Secretary of State take account in the “Digital Britain” review of the fact that this year licence fee income to the BBC is likely to exceed total advertising revenue for commercial television?

“Does that not strengthen the case for making part of the licence fee available for other public service broadcasting objectives such as regional news, children’s television, and supporting Channel 4, as was recommended by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee more than 18 months ago?”

Mr Burnham replied: “I always listen very carefully to the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Last week the hon. Gentleman’s Committee made some broader points—although on the more narrow subject of BBC Worldwide—about preserving high-quality public service broadcasting.

“I would say to him, if I may, that it is a little premature to make assumptions about any supposed surplus in this licence fee period.

“We are only at the very beginnings of digital switchover. We will not have a clear picture of how the costs of the digital switchover help scheme are panning out until the Winter Hill transmitter for the north-west region is switched over later this year.

“I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s objectives. Of course, Labour Members want to see a strong BBC as well as high-quality provision beyond the BBC. We are working through our final consideration of these issues and we will come forward with clear proposals in the final “Digital Britain” report.”

Comments from outspoken Labour MP David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) brought some light relief. Mr Taylor joked: “Next week we mark the 30th anniversary of black Thursday, when Mrs. Thatcher came to power,” which was met with laughter from all sides of the chamber.

He continued: “In the period for which she was in power and indeed since, it has been impossible to propose public spending to underpin industrial policy. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the remarks last Friday of that dangerous radical Lord Mandelson, who suggested substantial public investment to provide 50 Mbps broadband so that people, families and businesses in city, urban and rural settings will at long last have something adequate to support their lives and businesses?

“If Australia can do it on a grander scale, with 100 Mbps broadband and a rather left-of-centre Prime Minister, perhaps we can aspire to something similar.”

Mr Burnham, laughing, replied: “I do not know what event my hon. Friend has planned for next Thursday, but I look forward to receiving an invitation.

“This issue is critical not just to the creative industries or TV and broadcasting but to the entire economy. The way in which all businesses operate will be determined by the capability and quality of this country’s communications infrastructure.

“It will determine their productivity and efficiency, as well as how their staff can work in future—whether they can do more home working and whether there can be more opportunity to work flexibly using the highest-quality new technology. This is a matter of the highest order for the country.”


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