Broadband is the new project of choice for a quick political win.
Nick Clegg was talking about it prior to the Lib Dem conference. David Cameron got it into his conference speech, promising Brits "we'll get the best superfast broadband network in Europe". The Federal Communications Commission plan to give Barack Obama a pre-election boost by expanding rural broadband in the States. And even the ever-popular EU got in on the act last month, proposing an £8 billion plan to rollout superfast broadband across the continent.
As political strategy goes, the politicians have got it spot on. Getting hold of fast and reliable broadband is a common complaint of voters and consistently ranks high on the list of concerns of those who live in rural areas, as well as those residing elsewhere. It also has the added benefit of being something that translates very simply into much-needed economic growth.
Businesses need it - indeed, countryside businesses are crying out for it - and consumers demand it. If you're not one beset with this particular problem, it is probably worth taking a look at a handy map launched by Ofcom last week, which shows the huge swathes of the UK rated either 4 or 5 out of 5 for the speed and reliability of their broadband.
Fortunately the Coalition has been proactive on the issue. In the Comprehensive Spending Review last October, George Osborne announced the four areas that would be the pilots for the rollout of a scheme to deliver superfast broadband to 90% of households nationwide.
Extremely proactive, you might say. By 4th March 2011 - before some of the first-wave pilots had even been set up - the Chancellor was back in the news announcing that Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) were accepting bids for the second wave of pilots. Two months later and the winners of the second tranche were being announced, swiftly followed by Wales' and Northern Ireland's allocation. Finally, in August, DCMS minister Jeremy Hunt announced the final lot of councils to benefit from the Government's £530 million fund. All of which is excellent and much needed; but there are some caveats.
The first is that councils are expected to 'match-fund' their rural broadband allocations. This is not as unreasonable as it sounds. In theory, private companies should be eager to step in with the cash to create the infrastructure that will build them a whole new customer base and thus reimburse the initial outlay. Testing economic times have slowed this process however, and it is assumed that - a year on from the pilots - many councils have yet to start the ball rolling on these projects.
As an example, in Bath and North Somerset last week, local councillors warned that 35,000 premises in rural areas would "be left out of the revolution if performance is left to market forces." A council report on the problem remarked: "The key issue to consider is whether with scarce resources, council investment is best made in matching Broadband UK's funding, or whether there are greater returns to be made by investing elsewhere and in other ways to support economic growth."
Now MPs are getting nervous. After Ofcom's Communications Infrastructure Report released last week revealed that 14% of British homes still do not have access to decent broadband, members from across the partisan divide queued up to quiz Jeremy Hunt about the slow pace of the rollout. Caroline Noakes, Tory MP for Romsey and Southampton North, captured the mood neatly saying: "BDUK has allocated £8 million to Hampshire for the delivery of rural broadband. Although that is very welcome, and much more than was received under the last Government, residents in the rural Test valley are still concerned to know not only when they will receive faster broadband but how long it will take to get there. What can be done to speed up the process?"
Similarly, the cross-party Culture, Media and Sport committee (you'll remember them as the lucky few that were sprung into the spotlight whilst questioning the Murdoch's senior and junior during the summer) released a report containing the damning verdict "rural broadband coverage has not developed as quickly as it should have. Having access to broadband services is vital for rural communities and economies, and the UK economy as a whole."
While certain areas (among them places in Lancashire, Cumbria, Wales, Gloucestershire and Surrey) are reported to be at procurement stage; others are still umming and ahhing about what to do next, mindful of budget cuts and the May local elections. In the meantime, the digital divide between urban and rural areas grows ever wider; with towns and cities basking in fibre-optic internet speeds and a variety of different providers offering competitive rates, while those living in the countryside have to contend with the net going down everytime someone calls their home telephone.
The intention has been announced by the Government (more than once), and more money than previously hoped for has been handed over to local authorities. But action has been slow in coming, and the pressure needs to be kept up to make sure that the money that has been pledged translates into expanded broadband coverage across Britain.