Government “boosts” broadband at everyone’s expense

The government has moved to further line the pockets of telecommunications companies by relaxing planning laws requiring council approval before installing communications cabinets on public land. According to the new Culture Secretary, Maria Miller this sweeps away the red tape holding the country back. Ms Miller’s background as a advertising executive has obviously primed her well for a proper understanding of the issues involved in the telecommunications business.

The government’s aim, inherited from the previous lot it has to be said, is to wire up the country for “superfast broadband”, whatever that means. They reckon domestic users need at least 24Mbps for the UK to extract itself from the dark ages, and 80Mbps would be better. But does the Culture Secretary, or anyone else in government, know what 80Mbps means? Well in real terms, if you’re going to abuse the internet by streaming live high-definition video across it, you might use up 2Mbps of data rate. that’s 1/40th of an 80Mbps line. Okay – if you reckon that celebrity TV shows to people’s homes over the net is important to the country’s future this is still massive overkill. Video calls will use up about 1Mbps at worst and nothing much else comes close apart from downloading entertainment media.

Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Culture Secretary
Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Culture Secretary

I’m not saying that the people of the UK should be denied the chance to download music and video content at high speed if they want to it. I do question the government’s imperative for those who don’t want it to share in the cost of paying for it. If some people want high speed file downloads, those people can decide whether the cost is worth it and stump up the cash. If there’s a subsidy going it should be to promote 100% availability of a reliable 2Mbps service to rural areas – the data rate needed for business. We want to make it easier for rural business to do work, not city dwellers to watch TV all day.

Relaxing the planning laws is undoubtedly going to make it cheaper for the telecoms companies to install infrastructure  but it’s also going to make it impossible for local residents to object to unsightly and badly placed street furniture. You may feel this isn’t a big problem now, but this is simply because they’re going to think through the idea properly before submitting it to the local council in order to avoid delays if the council objects.

According to BT, it takes currently takes between four and eight weeks for councils to approve new boxes. this is not unreasonable. Are telecoms company planners turning up for work on a Monday morning, deciding to install a new cable somewhere and then having to sit around for a month while waiting for approval? I hardly think so; these things need to be planned well ahead of time and thought through properly. There’d be something very funny going on if the planning application was on the critical path.

In May this year, Kensington and Chelsea council did deny BT”s request to install most of the 108 new cabinets it applied for. The council’s reason was that the new cabinets were unsightly and that BT had made no effort to re-use existing locations or place them in inconspicuous locations (a move which would probably have cost BT money). The council cited the historic character of the proposed sights; BT’s bullying response was to declare that the residents of the borough would therefore have to put up with “historic” broadband speeds – it then packed up its little vans and announced it was going to install fibre in other boroughs until the Council came around to their way of thinking. Other cable operators have been able to install high-speed internet lines in the borough, so BT’s argument is very thin indeed.

Our new culture secretary’s first act appears to be putting the interests of bullying big business ahead of local democracy.