In an exclusive interview, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, argues that a superfast broadband infrastructure is key to Britain’s economic future.
As economic headwinds continue to buffet the City, Britain is more desperate than ever to wean itself off its traditional dependence on financial services. Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, believes the time is right for the burgeoning technology sector to pick up the slack.
To deliver the next generation of digital services, however, the country needs to beef up its broadband infrastructure. The minister’s job is to deploy tactical investment, cajole the private sector and energise the debate.
He believes there has “Never been a secretary of state as ambitious as I am over broadband speeds.” Ambitious is right; Hunt has promised to deliver the best broadband network in Europe by 2015, with 90 percent of the population receiving supercharged speeds, whether at home or at work.
Independent studies suggest that a superior broadband network helps drive economic development, whether it is delivered by fixed-line, satellite or mobile devices. While Hunt admits his own drain on the network only amounts to the occasional catch-up programmes on the BBC’s iPlayer, or downloading newspapers, he believes that with the right digital backbone, services will spring up that will keep Britain at the forefront of the internet revolution over the coming decade.
Think Quarterly: How high is broadband on your list of priorities? Jeremy Hunt: It is right up there with the Olympics and one or two other areas as being one of my highest priorities. I have a meeting every week about superfast broadband with key members of my team and Ed Richards, the Chief Executive of Ofcom. I think as a result of that focus we have made extraordinary progress. We started with one of the slowest broadband networks in Europe and we are on track to have one of the fastest. There is, however, more work to do.
What is your broadband like?
[Laughs] Not brilliant actually, but that’s not the reason for my focus.
Did you have an interest in broadband before taking over the brief?
I had real interest in it when I worked on my own business for 14 years before becoming an MP. That was a publishing operation that turned into an internet business. I’ve always thought the UK has a real opportunity to develop a technology sector that is at least as important to the economy as financial services. And at a time when we are trying to reduce our dependency on financial services, this is an ideal opportunity.
What was your view on the
Digital Britain report commissioned by the previous Government? It wasn’t a bad first stab. I just felt it was unambitious; in particular, the big aspiration for broadband policy was a universal 2Mb connection. I was told we did not even have enough money to fund that. But we have been able to build on that and 90 percent of people in the country will be able to receive superfast broadband by 2015.
Is there a specific speed target you have in mind for Britain?
At the moment, ‘superfast’ is defined as more than 24Mb download speeds, which is a huge step up from the 6.8Mb that is the average download speed at the moment. I’ve also tried to influence policy thinking that today’s superfast broadband is tomorrow’s superslow. So while 24Mb may seem superfast now it is not enough to say, ‘That’s the end of the story.’
Is your ambition to create the best broadband network in Europe by 2015 still on track?
Absolutely, and when we say ‘best’ we mean a combination of price, coverage and speed. Those are the three key factors, and I’d like to demonstrate that if we take those together we are the best in Europe. Coverage is really important. What I have come to realise in the last year is that take-up is just as important. It’s not just how many people can get 100Mb, it is how many people actually want it.
”Give developers a superfast network with a customer base that’s accessing it, and we’ll begin to see a host of new applications. All sorts of things become possible.”
Take-up for the fastest speeds has still been relatively low. Is the plan, ‘If you build it, they will come’?
People won’t come if the price is too high, so you have to have a strategy that makes superfast broadband available at affordable prices. I want to make sure the UK is the place where the most exciting products and services are developed. In that situation it is a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Give developers a superfast network with a customer base that’s accessing it, and we’ll begin to see a host of new applications; higher education, teleconferencing, gaming… All sorts of things become possible.
What is your role?
I want to energise the agenda. Otherwise we’ll be making the same mistake with broadband that we made with rail; where we’ll end up opening our high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham 45 years after the French opened the TGV.
What is your role with the companies looking to invest in a broadband network?
My job is to challenge all the companies who are involved in that market. They’ve got big investment programmes but my job is to say, ‘Yes, but… We really appreciate what you’re doing but what is the next step?’
What do you see as potential obstacles?
Investment is a massive challenge for any company in this market, as well as helping the City to understand how strategic this is to a modern economy. Digital infrastructure will become the hub of innovation and investment. There will be real returns for investors. That is an argument that still needs to be won.
Are the rural regions keen to install superfast broadband?
There’s a real understanding, particularly outside of London, that getting good broadband speeds is vital. We have invited local areas to come up with their own broadband plans. We’ve had an extraordinary unleashing of entrepreneurialism. In Cumbria, I met a farmer who is looking at digging up his own roads so he can lay fibre to his farm. We’re trying to create a structure that allows that local enterprise to flourish.
What about in the rest of Europe?
The EU has a target that by 2020 half of the population should be accessing 100Mb. I’d love Britain to be the first country to do that. It’s not implausible but we have a lot of work to do.
Is broadband a basic human right in the twenty-first century?
I’m nervous talking about ‘human rights’, but I do think it is a modern essential. The evidence is very strong that actually older, disadvantaged, more rural and remote groups of people benefit more than those in the cities. It may also be the thing that stops the depopulation of villages.
I met an 80-year-old woman who said that, thanks to broadband and the internet, she wasn’t lonely anymore. In terms of isolation, access to medical services, getting your shopping delivered and being able to learn online, it is totally transformative.