This weekend marks a symbolic moment in the provision of internet access in the UK with the switching off by BT of their dial-up internet service. BT claim that most of their customers affected are now able to switch to a broadband option, and that only around 1000 people in remote areas of the country are not able to obtain broadband because the supporting line/equipment is inadequate. These thousand or so people will however still be able to obtain dial-up access from a company called Plusnet, which BT bought in 2007, and continues to operate as a stand-alone company, separate from BT’s own operations. To switch to Plusnet, customers had however to request such a switch, as BT did not make available an automatic switchover facility.
So why do I call this a sign of Government policy failure? After all we are only talking about around 1000 people and they can still obtain dial-up access if they choose to do so. But to understand why I call it a failure it must be appreciated how important the internet has become in our lives, and as well the determination shown by Government to promote its use.
In terms of access, UK Government policy has primarily been based on seeking a market solution, that is open competition between commercial operators would it was hoped lead to most of the country having internet access and subsequently broadband internet access. The Government has however recognised that competition by itself would not lead to 100% coverage across the country, as simply some areas are commercially not viable (they are not profitable enough for the infrastructure investment needed), therefore it would be necessary to provide public money to achieve full coverage.
In the 2010 Government Spending Review, which provided for Government spending for the years 2011-2015, it was announced that £530 million would be made available for the provision of broadband services to rural communities, so that by 2015 90% of the UK had access to superfast broadband (at least 24 Mbps), and there would be universal access (100% coverage) to a broadband speed of at least 2Mbps. The £530 million was to be allotted via a competitive procurement tendering framework set up by a Government body, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). Local authorities using the framework could then run a competition in order to select a supplier for individual local broadband projects.
However, the procurement framework process has been heavily criticised as being inadequate in providing a template for a truly competitive process to take place. In its July report on the Rural Broadband Programme, the National Audit Office found that the process as designed heavily favoured BT. Of the nine companies that originally qualified to submit tenders under the process, only two, BT and Fujitsu, were actually appointed to the framework, and in March, Fujitsu decided to withdraw from making further tenders having won none of the contracts they had tendered for. Thus BT have won all of the contracts awarded so far, and being the only provider left in the process will win all the remaining contracts. As well as this issue, the targets set to be achieved by 2015 have also proved to be impossible to meet, and a revised target date is now said to be 2017, and who is to say whether further slippage might not occur.
The current Government and previous UK Governments have been keen to espouse the importance of the internet in all our lives, with increasing reliance placed upon it. However, the failure to ensure broadband access to the thousand or so people still reliant on dial-up access highlights the weakness and failings in the overall Government broadband policy. The Rural Broadband initiative has failed these people. BT is a hardened commercial operator, and took a commercial decision to switch them off, even though of course it is at a time when as an organisation it is receiving large amounts of public money for rural broadband provision. If the internet is considered so important for us all, even if only 1 person does not have broadband access, it is time for the Government to switch on and ensure genuine universal broadband service is provided immediately, not in some distant future.