BBC presses case for universal broadband

BBC presses case for universal broadband

by: Dave West

The government should consider intervention in the market in order to ensure everyone has access to broadband internet, the BBC has said in a statement on next generation networks.

In the submission to a Westminster seminar on the subject, the corporation noted that take-up was lowest among older people and those on lower incomes. It said they were "amongst the groups most likely to benefit from the social benefits the internet provides... The BBC believes strongly that the wider availability of high quality connections would play a powerful role in reducing social exclusion".

The BBC's future media and technology director, Ashley Highfield, was expected to present the paper to the government's Convergence Think Tank today. Policy-makers are considering how best to encourage the wider take-up of broadband, and the rollout of connections of up to 100Mbps.

The statement said that, as a public service content provider, the BBC wanted to ensure universal access "in the most convenient way consistent with a reasonable cost". This in turn required "that all digital divides (social, geographic, age, ability) be bridged".

The contribution - though aimed at the debate on developing networks - is also relevant to the immediate problem of growing internet traffic. Highfield has previously criticised the idea of internet service providers charging customers, or content providers such as the BBC, for faster delivery or larger transfer allowances.

The practices could become more common and Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, last week suggested that super-fast connections would have to be paid for by the consumers who wanted them.

Today's submission appeared to reinforce Highfield's opinion, calling for "maintaining free access at the point of use to licence fee funded services". It continued: "Whilst this does not prevent payment by consumers of a price to access a distribution system (cable for example), such a price should be transparent and affordable."

The statement called for "a good quality of service to all, and limiting mediation by third parties between the BBC and its audiences" and noted that the BBC needed to "limit distribution costs in order to invest as much as possible in content".

The BBC went on to say it would "support" an approach - currently favoured by Ofcom and the government - that "encourages and removes obstacles to investment", as opposed to actively investing in it.

However, it added: "...we would like to emphasise the importance of considering the case for a new definition of universal service aims in a higher-speed future. There is a need to scope the case for public intervention to ensure all parts of the UK have access to modern broadband networks, even in areas where it may be commercially unattractive. For if broadband delivers social value that goes beyond private value, then it will be essential to ensure that no-one is left out."

The submission also called for continued content regulation as the use of broadband for television grows: "Audiences watching TV online will expect the same protection as for linear TV, and will want to ensure that their children are safe and their privacy protected. Convergence should therefore not mean the end of content regulation."

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