The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt – and, yes, that may be easier to write than to say on a Monday morning on Radio 4 – has outlined plans for every region of Britain to have access to super-fast broadband within five years. He expects two thirds of the cost to be met by commercial suppliers, with a third – mostly for rural areas – coming from public funds.
The recognition that public money will be needed is a step forward. Internet access is increasingly an essential of modern life and not to have it is to be excluded from the mainstream. But it is important to separate what looks like an admirable ambition from the more humdrum reality. Mr Hunt's plan conflates two things. The 2015 deadline actually amounts to a postponement. The last government had promised broadband access for all by 2012, so the timetable has actually slipped by three years.
The Government's defence would be that the bar, in terms of speed, has been set much higher. The last guarantee was for broadband at a minimum speed of 2 megabits per second; the new pledge is for "super-fast" access, which is regarded as at least 24Mbps, on the grounds that "what people use the internet for is changing the whole time".
In emphasising speed as well as access, the Government is addressing a major weakness. While Britain currently lies third in Europe, after France and Germany, in terms of fixed broadband subscriptions, others have higher levels of broadband penetration and most have much faster speeds. We limp along behind Portugal, Hungary and Slovakia, so there is work to be done.
The question is whether people with no possibility of broadband access at present – mostly, but not exclusively, in rural communities – might not have preferred some service in two years' time, with upgrading to follow, to the promise of a super-fast service three years later. The aim to give the UK "Europe's best broadband service" by 2015 is an impressive boast, and we would like to believe it could be done. But a more modest ambition, such as universal coverage sooner, might have been more realistic and as welcome.