2Mb rural broadband commitment 'outdated'
MINIMUM rural broadband speeds should be at least 10Mb, the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has said.
They say the Government ambition - basic broadband of at least 2Mb being available to all by 2016 - is "outdated".
Instead they echo Ofcom in their insistence that 10Mb is a more suitable minimum - and they point to evidence that even that won't be considered satisfactory in only a few years time.
Certainly, compared with a recent decision in the US to reclassify broadband as being a connection speed of more than 25Mb - up from 4Mb - the UK Government's ambitions seem more than a little behind the times.
Defra's first issue is that despite the 2Mb target being for the end of 2016, there's "an assumption" that 2Mb is already widely available.
That's in part because the goalposts have been moved several times. Originally everyone in the UK should have been guaranteed at least 2Mb by the end of 2012, but this was then moved to the end of this Parliament (May 2015), and then the end of 2016.
BT say only 3% of UK premises - around 850,000 - can't physically get 2Mb. But Defra point out that in reality even where it is available, it's often the maximum achievable speed rather than a consistent average.
They say the resulting complacency about speed and availability means the Government is moving too quickly towards its aim of "digital by default" services.
They cite the move to an online-only system for claiming Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments as a prime example:
"...online-only services often need to be accessed by those located in geographical areas which are difficult for current broadband infrastructure to reach or for good coverage and speed to be provided."
This is in stark contrast to the largely positive tone struck by the latest report from the Government's Superfast (Rural) Broadband Programme on rural broadband services - and even Ofcom's assertion that the average broadband in rural areas is as low as 13Mb.
Then comes the issue of the 2Mb minimum being far from future proof. As mentioned above, Defra are echoing Ofcom in saying 10Mb should be the minimum necessary download speed.
Defra, meanwhile, quote James Fraser, who lives and works on a farm in East Sussex:
"Today an internet connection needs at least 2Mb to be considered functional. In a further five years' time most internet users are likely to require 24Mb for their service to be functional. In the future we may well find that 100Mb becomes a new minimum."
"Make the last 5% the priority"
Meanwhile, there's concern that the difference between the haves and the have-nots will only increase.
It's clearly much easier to deal with mostly urban areas, where hundreds, if not thousands, of users can benefit from upgrades to one cabinet - and where the complaints tend to be that the fibre that has arrived is fast but not as fast as it could be.
Defra say the current approach - which includes getting superfast broadband to 95% of the population by 2017 - could well risk leaving the 5% further behind than ever - that is, having to put up with next to no service while everyone else is upgraded.
In addition, given the slippage in the completion date for basic broadband, Defra are concerned about superfast delivery dates for the last premises.
They quote BDUK's Chris Townsend as being "absolutely committed to finalising that last 5% by 2020 at the very latest" - but they say they want to see the hardest to reach premises made the priority.
When broadband isn't broadband
Meanwhile in the US, last month the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three to two to raise the bar for the country's internet services, reclassifying broadband as being a connection speed of more than 25Mb, up from 4Mb.
As the average US internet connection is around 10Mb, the decision effectively downgrades millions of Americans from broadband to, well, not broadband.
As well as giving the FCC extra power to push ISPs to improve their connection speeds, the decision could be seen as an effort to boost take-up of superfast service - an estimated 71% of households that can access services of 25Mb and above choose not to.
Those who support the shift called the 4Mb standard "outdated" and the market and analysis based around it as "antiquated".
That kind of talk won't sit well with British politicians keen to push the UK as a world leader in broadband technology and inclusivity.