The Government has become over-fixated on high-speed broadband when price and reliability matter as much to consumers and the economy, a report from the right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank has argued.
According to the authors of The Superfast and the Furious, the Government should put more emphasis on universal provision at usable speeds and prices, reducing red tape that slows investment in better services, and improve competition and innovation by boosting consumer power.
Despite the fact that the UK Internet economy had grown to 8 percent of GDP - a higher share than for any other country in the G20 – the country remains stuck in the middle lane for fibre connection levels and broadband speeds, while millions of consumers still weren't using the medium effectively, claimed the report.
“All of which begs a critically important question for policymakers. Does the UK’s already strong internet economy mean that having the 'best' network matters less than what you do with it?,” it said.
The Government’s answer had been to formulate an expensive ‘megabits per second’ investment plan based on expanding high-speed fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) access, largely because this delivered an easy return of improving speeds.
Meanwhile, the declared target of offering universal service provision on the basis of 2MBits/per second was unambitious.
The authors offer a sometimes complex set of recommendations backed up by a survey of public attitudes, making the common sense observation that Government policy after 2015 needs to assess a wider set of criteria than speed alone.
This being a free-market think tank, they also reaffirm that too much of the wrong sort of tinkering by Government could end up wasting tax money without setting out how the success of such investment should be measured.
“The government's current spending plans will extend fast broadband to the vast majority of people. Any further public money should be spent on making sure we are putting this to good use. It's far from clear that your taxes should help to pay for me to have an even faster connection,” said co-author, Chris Yiu.
Not everyone is convinced that the report is saying anything that shouldn't already be obvious to policy makers.
“Let’s remember that to have a fully connected country we need people to have more than enough bandwidth, so that speed is no longer the conversation, rather the possibilities that the connection enables,” responded Dana Tobak, head of London-based ISP, Hyperoptic.
“The important thing is that the Government continues to spend funds on long term infrastructure, rather than wasting taxpayer’s money on a programme that will immediately require further investment when it is finished,” she said.
Influential broadband news site Thinkbroadband.com concurred.
"The task of getting the last few million people in the UK to actually use the Internet productively and for things like interaction with Government is a complex one, that crosses many boundaries including education and cost for individuals,” said Andrew Ferguson."
“The biggest hurdle may actually be trust both of technology and people concerned about why they are being forced online.”