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Broadband Battleground Ahead of UK Election
Prime Minister Gordon Brown sets universal broadband as the goal by 2020, paid with phone line tax, while the Conservative Party proposes alternative funding

The promise of superfast broadband has become a political football ahead of the UK’s general election in May.

Today Prime Minister Gordon Brown called next generation broadband “the electricity of the digital age" in a speech which upped the ante over previously announced nationwide broadband delivery targets.

The Prime Minister said he wanted to make super-fast broadband universally available in the UK by 2020. This supersedes a previous pledge to reach 90% of the country with broadband services by 2017. A government sponsored report into Digital Britain last June recommended 2Mbps universal access by 2012.

Proving just how high up the political agenda the issue has become, the conservative party recently outlined its action plan for delivering broadband speeds of 100Mbps to most homes by 2017.

This it stated will make the UK “the first country in Europe to extend super-fast 100Mbps broadband across most of the population.”

The majority of UK broadband customers currently get between 3Mbps and 4.5Mbps. Virgin Media is to launch a 100Mbps service to its customers by the end of 2010 and is already trialling 200Mbps using cable modem DOCSIS 3. British telecom carrier BT is spending £1.5bn ($2.24bn) on an optical FTTH network rated between 40-100Mbps in time for the 2012 Olympic games.

If Labour is returned to power it plans a £6 ($9.00) a year tax on fixed phone lines to generate £175m ($262m) a year and fund the rollout of next generation access networks.

The Conservative Party is opposed to this tax and instead propose to fund its scheme by encouraging BT to open its underground ducts to competitors, topped up with money expected to be left over from the £130m ($194m) a year of licence fee payments set aside for digital TV switchover.

Ironically its plan to connect ‘most’ households will potentially isolate many of those in rural areas who may typically vote conservative.

In his speech today Gordon Brown said: "We can allow the market to provide a solution on its own terms and according to its own timetable. The result would be super-fast broadband coverage determined not by need or by social justice, but by profitability. The alternative is our vision: ensuring, not simply hoping for, universal coverage."

In the speech Brown suggested that the technology has the potential to open a new interactive form of politics in which citizens develop a new kind of relationship with Parliament.

Every citizen he suggested would have a personalised dashboard of government services ranging from the ability manage pensions and tax to arranging hospital appointment; application for schools or get a new passport or driving licence.

The electorate will be used to parties making such promises as the deadline for an election approaches and no details of what exactly will be delivered by 2020, timescale or any funding – particularly for getting connectivity to those living in rural areas - were released. Nor has ‘superfast’ broadband been defined. Some are suggesting 25Mbps, others 50Mbps but there are also issues of reliability and quality to consider.

The proposal to deliver a minimum, universal 2Mbps is part of the Digital Economy Bill, which is expected to be pushed into legislation before Parliament is dissolved ahead of the election.

The most controversial part of the bill is a plan for ISPs to be required to block access to sites that allow "substantial" copyright infringement. The bill allows for the "temporary suspension" of internet connections after a three strikes warning from their ISPs.

Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo as well as the four largest UK ISPs—BT, Orange, Virgin Media and TalkTalk—have roundly criticised the the proposals. In an open letter they stated: "Endorsing a policy that would encourage the blocking of websites by UK broadband providers or other internet companies is a very serious step for the UK to take. There are myriad legal, technical and practical issues to reconcile before this can be considered a proportionate and necessary public policy option."

It continued: "Put simply, blocking access as envisaged by this clause would both widely disrupt the internet in the UK and elsewhere and threaten freedom of speech and the open internet, without reducing copyright infringement as intended. To rush through such a controversial proposal at the tail end of a parliament, without any kind of consultation with consumers or industry, is very poor law-making."