Newly announced aims in the Digital Britain Green Paper to promote digital inclusion could be implemented in the same way as council-run reusable nappies schemes, it has been predicted, with underprivileged families’ broadband bills subsidised at local authority level.
Yesterday, the findings of Lord Carter’s report into the future of the UK’s digital communications were outlined in parliament by culture secretary Andy Burnham. The central tenet of the study is that everyone in the UK should have access to a broadband speed of up to 2Mb by 2012.
The move is aimed in part at boosting the economy and ensuring that consumers are able to enjoy newer internet services such as on-demand TV and high-end websites that require a faster connection to access all of their features. However, it is also intended to ensure that low-income families who could struggle to meet their broadband bills are not denied access to a broadband connection. This is deemed likely to disadvantage them further by denying them the chance to search and apply for job vacancies.
Lord Carter said: “There is no sector with the possible exception of energy that the rest of the economy relies upon more than this one. The digital economy is the driving force of much of what we do and probably even more of what we will go on to do."
Tellingly, details of how Lord Carter proposes the implementation of the scheme were not revealed in the report. However, according to Alex Buttle, director of Top 10 Broadband, the most likely eventuality is that local councils will assume responsibility for distributing subsidies to poorer families in the way that they do for Real Nappies schemes.
Under the terms of these projects, which are currently in place in a range of boroughs including Barnet, Camden and Islington, families pay out for reusable nappies in advance and are subsequently reimbursed by their local authority to up to around £50. In order to get these retrospective payments they must typically produce receipts and proof of address and income.
Mr Buttle explained: “Lord Carter’s report was big on lofty principles and statements of intent of delivering broadband for all, but less clear on how this might be achieved. At Top 10 Broadband, we predict that a subsidised system implemented by local councils is the most practical and indeed cost-effective method of tackling the problem of digital exclusion.”
Mr Buttle went on to rule out the likelihood that a government-backed ISP will be formed which would offer cheap or free broadband on the grounds that this would prove far too costly for the government to implement. He was similarly dismissive of internet service providers being forcibly compelled to cut the cost of their broadband deals, since this would prove unworkable at a time when revenues are set to come under strain as a result of the credit crunch.
Since Lord Carter’s targets for achieving universal, nationwide broadband access were announced they have met with a mixed response. The target of 2MB speeds for all households in particular has been heavily criticised as too low. Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has been especially vociferous, noting that the average broadband speed is currently 3.6Mb and that this is already significantly below speeds experienced in many developed European countries.
In a bid to assist consumers who are struggling to pay bills and promote digital inclusion, TalkTalk yesterday announced its new Emergency Plan scheme. Under its terms, cash-strapped consumers are afforded a payment holiday from their broadband and home phone bills for six months.