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Strike up the broadband!

October 2012 

My new favourite group of dangerous subversives has emerged from an unlikely place: the House of Lords, specifically the Select Committee on Communications.  This ferocious gang includes genuine oldie Joan Bakewell, and aspirant oldie Melvyn Bragg, and they have just produced a report that firmly puts the boot into the Government’s current approach to broadband.  As it happens, they agree with opinions I have been spouting for years at any opportunity.  They are not impressed with the government’s efforts so far, and neither am I.

The Committee is a reassuringly senior bunch.  The average age is 70, with almost half of them well over that age.  No reader of The Oldie will be surprised that they grasped the technical matters without any trouble, and quickly focused on the important social issues, seeing the whole thing very clearly.  

I’ve been saying for ages that if young Mr Cameron wants to spend money on infrastructure, as he says he does, then broadband is the obvious place to start, especially in the countryside, which is fast being left behind.  There isn’t any doubt in my mind that broadband will soon be a central and strategic part of our communications network, if it isn’t already.  The infrastructure work is going to have to be done at sooner or later, so let’s get on with it; on top of that it would employ lots of people of all levels of skill at a difficult time for the economy.  However, I can detect no real enthusiasm in Whitehall.

Their Lord and Ladyships agree with me.  They have concluded that “the government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy”.  They have also noticed what is blindingly obvious to all but politicians: we are rapidly moving towards a two tier property world.  Areas with good broadband can encourage businesses to start or move there; areas with poor broadband are seeing no new investment and an exodus of employers.  Correcting that imbalance would level the market and make it easier to tempt employers into less favoured areas.

Our noble chums have also spotted the government’s mistaken fixation with improving the speed of the connections we already have, rather than increasing the overall availability of half-decent broadband.  It’s all the politicians talk about in public; they boast about Megabytes per second, when the real target ought to be the provision of a good enough level of a cooking standard broadband for everyone.  Once that is achieved, we can focus on ramping the speeds up.

It is pure vanity that is driving this obsession; many European countries have higher maximum speeds than us, and politicos always love to be able to say that they are the fastest; it’s a more glamorous boast than “everyone can get basic broadband”.

I hadn’t realised until now that Select Committees are available to watch online (live or recorded: and this one had a good range of witnesses, from a village community scheme in the Lake District (run, to my astonishment, by Lord Mandleson’s brother, a retired psychologist) to some big wigs at BT and Microsoft.

The recurring message was that what is needed is the laying of many miles of fibre optic cables, which everyone recognises as the most future-proof and easily upgraded method of delivering broadband.  One rather attractive interim idea that came out is the notion of the broadband parish pump; the national infrastructure runs fast broadband to a central point in the village (perhaps the school), and individuals can then opt to be connected to it, much as one might decide to join in with main drainage.

Given that, for better or worse, so few aspects of our lives are not touched by the internet, it’s my belief that the provision of good broadband should be universal, just as roads, water, post, dustbin collections, health and education are.  

So my fulsome praise to our heroic Committee, many of them genuine Oldies, and their attempts to make the government see the big picture for once. 

See or read for yourself:


The Select Committee home page

Watch the Evidence being given:

29th May 2012

12 June 2012

13 June 2012

19 June 2012


Read their conclusions:

Read the Report online

Download a pdf version