Government can no longer justify poor broadband coverage

BT has rightly been under the microscope this week as it was first criticised by a cross-party Parliamentary committee for “significantly under investing” in broadband infrastructure, and is now facing proposals from Ofcom that its Openreach subsidiary be given independence.

Poor broadband hits the self-employed particularly hard, and we hope that Ofcom’s proposed reforms will lead to greater investment in much-needed infrastructure and more competition among providers. If things don’t improve, then the government must consider breaking up BT so that individuals and businesses can get the broadband they need.

Self-employment is growing rapidly in the UK, with a record 4.8 million people now choosing to be their own boss. Our research shows the vast majority turn to freelancing for the autonomy it provides and the better work/life balance.

Unequal access hurting self-employed

But those wanting to strike out on their own are hindered in many parts of the country by poor broadband coverage. Self-employed individuals depend on being able to work remotely and building their business from scratch at the kitchen table – if they can’t access reliable broadband, this way of working quickly becomes unviable.

This point is brought into stark relief when we look at the hard numbers. Ofcom found last year that across the UK, 69% of microbusinesses had access to superfast broadband. But in Scotland this drops to just 56%. Unsurprisingly, self-employment in Scotland makes up a smaller proportion of the workforce than almost anywhere else in the UK, while London has the highest concentration of self-employment.

A rural/urban divide clearly exists when it comes to broadband. Almost half of rural premises are unable to receive speeds above 10Mbit/s, with superfast coverage only 37%. If the government wants economic growth to be spread across the country and all individuals to have the opportunity to start their own business, this disparity must urgently be addressed.

Making broadband a key industrial priority

Clearly BT must now show more commitment by investing properly in the rollout of broadband through Openreach. But government must also be more proactive to ensure we have world class broadband across the country. The new government is talking big on developing an industrial strategy, and this drive must include digital infrastructure. For example, IPSE wants to see all new housing developments have fibre optic broadband as standard.

This fits in well with the government’s housebuilding drive. Through the Homes and Community Agency, which will also decide on the infrastructure needed, a new town with 10,000 homes will be built on a former RAF base at Northstowe, Cambridgeshire.

Government will also be backing the development of a new garden city in Bicester, which will include 13,000 homes. The government must use this opportunity to ensure these significant housing projects have broadband fit for the modern economy – working with housing associations, or through the Homes and Community Agency when projects are directly commissioned. Fibre optic broadband offers far greater speeds than standard broadband, with Virgin Media offering up to 152Mbit/s and BT 76Mbit/s. Guaranteeing this infrastructure is in place sooner rather than later will ensure the UK is well placed to be a leading digital economy.

Policymakers on right track but more ambition needed

Government is certainly starting to think seriously about how to spread the benefits of broadband. As part of their Digital Economy Bill currently going through Parliament, there will be a Universal Service Obligation giving every home and business in the country the legal right to have a 10Mbps connection installed. This comprehensive ambition is a step in the right direction, but 10MBps is setting the bar rather low only guaranteeing speeds more than twice as slow as superfast coverage.

It is also absolutely imperative that the obligation is really universal, and those in more isolated areas are not excluded on the grounds of cost. If the new government wants to ensure economic growth is spread more evenly, expanding quick and reliable coverage for all must be a priority. A fifth of self-employed people in Scotland and Wales say they struggle to work to their full potential due to broadband issues, almost double the number in London.

The world of work is changing. More and more people want the autonomy that comes when working for yourself. Government cannot justify letting these people down and hampering growth across the country any longer – a bold plan for expanding broadband coverage is imperative.

You can follow Jordan on Twitter @JLMarshall90. 



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