The Government's broadband policy has become “preoccupied” with delivering certain speeds to consumers and needs greater focus on access to the internet through a national broadband network, a report by peers has concluded.
The House of Lords Communications Committee warned of the “spectre of a widening digital divide”, stating there was a “very real risk” that some people and businesses were being left behind.
In their report, Broadband For All - An Alternative Vision, the peers said progress was being made in providing enhanced broadband provision.
However, UK broadband policy, rather than being target-driven, could support a national broadband network allowing people to “connect in different ways according to their needs and demands”.
The report stated: “The delivery of certain speeds should not be the guiding principle; what is important is the long-term assurance that, as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK.”
The report recommended national planning for a “communications network of local, regional, national, and internet exchanges where different operators can site equipment and exchange traffic, all linked by ample optical fibre that is open to use by competing providers”.
Committee chairman and Conservative peer Lord Inglewood told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “The current strategy is based around providing certain levels of speed across the country and we're not convinced at all that that is the right place to start thinking about a policy and a programme for rolling out broadband infrastructure.”
He added: “What we need to do is to find a system, it seems to us, that enables people to get what they want and pay accordingly.”
Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey told Today: “We've set ourselves a target that, by 2015, 90% of the country will have super-fast broadband. Generally speaking, most people define that around 35Mbps speed, but we've said that 100% of the country should have access to 2Mbps.”
On the issue of broadband access, he added: “What we wanted to do is say there's a very competitive marketplace, particularly between the two main players, Virgin and BT, in terms of laying the fibre to people's homes.
“Government intervention is needed for the rest of the country so we've put in place £500 million to support that.
“Local authorities and devolved administrations like the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government can match that, so there's actually about £1.2 billion going into that and there's also additional money for cities, because actually it's worth remembering there are pockets of cities which don't necessarily have as good broadband as they should.
“So there's a lot of public money going in to fill in this gap.”
Mr Vaizey said one of the reasons the Government wanted to move to a super-fast broadband policy was to try to future-proof.
He said: “If we can get the right infrastructure in place for the vast majority of the country - effectively everyone - then those people who want really, really fast speeds can at least connect to a network and upgrade at a reasonable cost.
“I think that would be a good thing to have.”
A BT spokesman said: “This report calls for fibre broadband to be brought within reach of as many communities as possible via an open network. That is already happening with BT making fibre available to a further four million homes alone whilst the committee has deliberated.
“This new network - which already passes 11 million homes and which will soon pass millions more - is open to all ISPs on an equal basis and more than 50 ISPs are using it.
“Companies can also lay their own fibre using BT's ducts and poles should they wish so there is plenty of room for competition.
“This level of open access is unparalleled in Europe and so the UK is well placed to have one of the best super-fast networks in the continent by 2015.”