Broadband - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 145-159)


24 NOVEMBER 2009

  Q145 Chairman: Minister, welcome. We have seen you before—you 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 topics.

  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 so today?

  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 quickly?

  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 that!

  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 circumstances—at busy times of the day or something—that 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 colleague.

  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 actually—not in this session but after the session—considered 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; thank you.

  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 out by.

  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—

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