Policy Background: Digital Britain

Technology never stands still.  Having completed a range of measures to promote the roll-out of first-generation broadband in the UK, it soon became apparent to the Government that other countries in Europe were investing in broadband infrastructure capable of delivering even higher speeds.  How should the UK respond?  Was the economic competitiveness of the country in jeopardy?

The development of UK broadband policy on NGA can be chronicled through the publication of several key reports.  In 2007, the the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) opened up the debate with the publication of Pipedreams? Prospects for Next Generation Broadband Deployment in the UK, which laid out the issues confronting the UK in rolling out new access network infrastructure.

The BSG then commissioned Analysys Mason to study fibre costs, and calculate the investment needed to deploy NGA across the whole of the UK.  (Note: An equivalent report on the costs of wireless and satellite broadband was also commissioned, much later, in 2010).

The Government also asked Francesco Caio, former chief executive of Cable and Wireless, to carry out a comprehensive and independent review of the future of broadband in the UK, paying particular attention to barriers to investment, which was published in 2008.

Finally, in 2009 this was followed with a series of strategy papers under the banner Digital Britain, which were to inform new policy in this area.  The final Digital Britain report takes a wide-ranging view of communications strategy, covering topics as diverse as digital inclusion, the digital TV switchover, digital radio, public service broadcasting, the role of the BBC, online copyright, monetization of content, and addressing IT skills shortages.

From the point of view of improving broadband infrastructure, the plan had two stages:

  1. A universal service commitment (USC) to provide 2Mbps to all UK households by 2012;
  2. Coverage to 90% of homes with NGA at speeds of 40Mbps or more by 2017, which would be market-led for two-thirds of the population, with subsidies available for the remainder.

Digital Britain introduced an important concept, the so-called “Final Third” – the areas left behind by the current wave of commercial NGA deployment plans.  In March 2010, the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published an Assessment and Practical Guidance on Next Generation Access Risk in the UK, which identifies areas likely to become part of the Final Third.  These are predominantly rural areas due to the higher cost of installing fibre, but some urban populations may also be at risk as a consequence of social deprivation.

To meet the objectives outlined in Digital Britain, the Government created a delivery body, christened Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).  This body was initially to concentrate on delivering the USC, using £200 million of funding from the Digital Switchover Help Scheme under-spend (part of the BBC licence fee set aside for helping people convert to digital TV), and the Strategic Investment Fund (a new £750 million fund announced in the March 2009 Budget).  BDUK formally came into existence in March 2010.

This article originally appeared in Beyond Broadband: Giving our Communities the Digital Networks They Need.

Key publications mentioned in this article:

April 2007Pipe Dreams? Prospects for next generation broadband deployment in the UK, report by the BSG executive

September 2008 - The costs of deploying fibre-based next-generation broadband infrastructure: Final report for the BSG by Analysys Mason.

September 2008Review of Barriers to Investment in Next Generation Access: Final Report by Francesco Caio (also called The Caio Review).

June 2009 Digital Britain: The Final Report by Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

March 2010 - An assessment and practical guidance on next generation access (NGA) risk in the UK by Communities and Local Government

October 2010 The Costs and Capabilities of Wireless and Satellite Technologies – 2016 snapshot Report for the BSG by Analysys Mason