Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
MP AND MS
24 NOVEMBER 2009
Q145 Chairman: Minister, welcome.
We have seen you beforeyou wear so many hats and they change
so often I get confused. Perhaps you could introduce your colleague?
Mr Timms: Thank you, Chairman.
I am delighted to be here and thank you for asking me to talk
about this very important topic. I am joined by Rachel Clark,
who is the Deputy Director for Communications and Content Industry
at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. If I might
make a few remarks by way of opening the discussion?
Q146 Chairman: We were not advised
of that but I am always a charitable Chairman, and as long as
they are brief!
Mr Timms: I have always depended
upon that, Chairman! I am grateful to you. First of all, I want
to underline how much I agree with the Committee about the importance
of this topic as we look at the UK economy over the next decade.
The Digital Britain White Paper was published in June,
the first strategy for the whole UK digital economy, and that
really addressed three questions on UK broadband. Firstly, what
is the minimum that anybody should be able to expect; secondly,
what should we aim for in the future; thirdly, how do we ensure
that people can take advantage of the opportunities that these
services offer? On the first question, the White Paper Universal
Service Commitment will ensure broadband access for virtually
everybody at a good enough level for most current services. We
see 2Mbps as a minimum, as a safety net, if you like. Many who
are helped by the commitment will obtain much higher speeds; we
think that there will be perhaps one million homes to benefit
from next generation solutions being used to fix these so-called
"not-spots" at the moment. Second, next generation broadband
will reach 60% to 70% of UK households and businesses over the
next few years but we do not think that is enough. I was the minister
at the time of the initial rollout of first generation broadband
and that was essentially an incremental upgrade to the existing
network and our success with that required significant public
intervention. Next generation broadband will require replacing
large sections of the network, the business case, the economics
are much more challenging and without public support about a third
of UK households would not get access in the next decade. So we
think it is important to do better than that and our aim is for
90% coverage of next generation broadband by 2017 and we propose,
as you know, a 50 pence per month levy on fixed lines to generate
£1 billion to support extending next generation access to
90% to 2017. That will put the UK at the forefront of the world's
digital economy. We have addressed digital inclusion as well and
I look forward very much to the Committee's questions on these
Chairman: We will certainly want to take
you up on your opening statement and Mr Binley will begin.
Q147 Mr Binley: I will indeed. Minister,
it is always good to see you; welcome. I am really concerned and
so is the industry about the definition of what 2Mbps really means.
There is a lot of misunderstanding because this definition does
not exist. Is it an average speed, a guaranteed minimum, the speed
that you can expect to achieve at a particular time of the day,
a medium speed? I could go on. It is pretty important that this
is defined, is it not?
Mr Timms: Yes.
Q148 Mr Binley: And could you do
Mr Timms: It is the speed which
gives access to most of the services that are currently in use
and in our memorandum we provided a table setting out the applications
to which that level of service will give access. You are right,
of course, that because of the nature of DSL there is some variability
in what is provided. It can sometimes vary at different times
of the day. We think it is the right level of service to give
access to the applications which are currently widely used.
Q149 Mr Binley: Not a very clear
answer, Minister, in truth. BT particularly is unclear and has
said it is unclear, and if a company like BT is unclear then there
is a real problem there and we need greater definition than we
are getting. I recognise that this is work in progress but can
you assure us that greater definition will come really rather
Mr Timms: What is required here
is a fair degree of pragmatism. Certainly the commitment that
we have made to deliver 2Mbps by 2012 will mean that virtually
everybody in the UK has a satisfactory broadband service, whereas
at the moment 10% or 11% of UK households do not have such a service.
That is the problem we want to resolve and the commitment will
enable us to do that.
Q150 Mr Binley: Forgive me, Minister,
the words "satisfactory broadband service" are not good
enough to an industry in which it is going to invest and our country
is going to invest a great deal of money and I still plead with
you to ensure that there is a real definition of what you mean
by 2Mbps. The industry is crying out for it and it is clear that
you do not have a clear definition at the moment. Will you do
so within a very short time?
Mr Timms: I do not think there
is any ambiguity about what 2Mbps means.
Q151 Mr Binley: I think we all know
Mr Timms: That is a speed which
is clearly well defined. The commitment is that we will give virtually
everybody access to a line capable of delivering 2Mbps I take
your point that in certain circumstancesat busy times of
the day or somethingthat that full 2Mbps speed might not
be delivered, but actually I think that that is a pretty clear
statement of what it is we are expecting everybody to have access
to by 2012 and that our funding will enable.
Mr Binley: I am happy to defer to my
Q152 Roger Berry: I do not want to
flog a dead horse on this, but a line that guarantees it can deliver
a certain speed is not the same as the consumer getting that speed.
Is it the minimum average daily speed; is it the minimum speed
at any time of day? Mr Binley raised the question and if we are
using numbers in this field, as we have to, it has to be clear
about what precisely it refers to, and at this moment we still
have not established this morning what this number refers to.
Mr Timms: It refers to people
having access to a service at 2Mbps.
Q153 Roger Berry: So that means that
at any time of day
Mr Timms: No.
Q154 Roger Berry: Is it an average
over a day?
Mr Timms: It is not a guarantee
that under any circumstances 2Mbps functionality will be available
because there is a degree of variability about that. But the service
that is provided will be capable of delivering 2Mbps.
Q155 Lembit Opik: Chairman,
may I come in on this one? We are all labouring the point because
it is so core to the whole debate. It sounds to me that with the
best will in the world this is probably something that has not
been formally defined because otherwise it would be easier to
say it; so no criticism of you. But can I ask would the Government,
in the light of the conversation we have just had, be willing
to consider on the basis of this session formalising what it actually
means? The reason being that in the previous session we have just
had we have realised that advertisers of broadband speed take
full advantage of this vagueness and can say up to 10Mbps but
actually you get three. So perhaps you have identified something
which would be in everybody's interests, including the Government's
if we actuallynot in this session but after the sessionconsidered
how we can formalise it so that the Advertising Standards Authority
would also have something to go by as well as the consumer.
Mr Timms: We certainly will work
up the technical specification, that will be necessary for the
procurement group that we are establishing to take this work forward,
and I will be very happy to make sure that the Committee has a
copy of that specification as soon as it has been concluded.
Lembit Opik: That is very helpful;
Q156 Mr Binley: Could you tell us
the timeframe for that, to give us a bit more reassurance?
Mr Timms: The procurement company
has now formally been set up. I would envisage us making appointments
to it in the early part of the New Year and I hope it will be
able to start its work very promptly.
Q157 Mr Binley: So you really do
not have an idea when a definition might be sensibly arrived at?
Mr Timms: Let me ask Rachel to
comment on when that particular piece of work might be carried
Ms Clark: In our view the technical
specification is something that needs to be done by the people
with that knowledge and expertise, so we would want the procurement
team in place to be advising on that and to ensure that when we
make the technical specification it genuinely does deliver the
commitment that Stephen talked about. So it is something we need
to do when we have the team in place and therefore something that
would be their top priority when they are appointed in the early
part of next year.
Q158 Mr Binley: I am just getting
the impression that you could be a very excellent minister, quite
frankly! Let us leave it, Minister. There is a real need to define
this quickly. That message has got over to you and you might come
back to us when you have had a little time to think and talk with
the procurement team to see when that might be because it is vital
to the whole process.
Mr Timms: I would just caution
the Committee about being too hung up about the definition. There
is a huge amount of work to be done. I accept that the technical
specification is an important part of that but there are a lot
of other things that we need to get sorted out.
Q159 Chairman: You have to be obsessed
with definition! If you are saying that it is a Universal Service
Obligation you have to be clear what you mean by it, Minister.
Of course we are going to be obsessed by the definition.
Mr Timms: Actually I think there
is clarity about the Universal Service Commitment