On the political agenda

Technology policy in an election year? Don't hold your breath. And anyway, President Bush is no techno-phile. His most coherent thought on the network society came during the 2000 race. Mocking Al Gore for a claim he never made - that he "invented the internet" - Bush asked: "But if he was so smart, how come all the internet addresses start with W. Not only one W, but three Ws?"

Strange, then, that the president, in a high-profile speech on his campaign trail, promised to bring "broadband technology to every corner of our country by the year 2007". With an expected recovery in the telecoms market, perhaps the Republicans have an eye on wealthy Silicon Valley campaign donors. Although the announcement produced what one commentator called "only a polite golf clap", in the words of another it was "better than nothing".

Bush didn't say exactly how he will achieve 100 per cent. The Democrats picked up on this immediately. The Republicans, they argue, don't "do anything to provide the new resources that will be needed to deploy broadband in rural and urban areas, and are not addressing the regulatory barriers that prevent deployment".

The question is, could broadband also find its way up the political agenda over here? The division between Bush and John Kerry is mirrored on this side of the Atlantic (see party policies in boxes). In as much as the Conservatives have a specific broadband policy, they disagree with public intervention and promote competition. Labour is very keen on competition, too, but more willing to consider regulatory and fiscal mechanisms to promote access and take-up. Its approach also gives a role to Regional Development Agencies and other regional bodies that are unpopular with the Conservative Party.

Both opposition parties have promoted broadband access in rural areas, but this should become less of an issue with near-universal access forecast by the time of the next election. It will be interesting to see which vision for the next five years the parties promote, and what promises they make. But few would expect any party to nail its colours to the broadband mast.

There is one issue, however, that could push technology right up the political agenda. Outsourcing - sending services and jobs abroad - has been spectacularly divisive in the current US campaign. Lots of broadband access makes moving jobs abroad easier, and jobs in the technology sector are among the first to be exported. The possible impact of outsourcing hasn't yet hit home, but when it does, voters are unlikely to warm to parties that seem impotent in the face of aggressive global job relocation. So broadband may not be much of a political issue at the moment. But the man on the Bangalore omnibus might turn it into one.

"The Labour Party's overall target is for the UK to have the most competitive and extensive broadband market in the G7 by 2005. Our approach will be in allowing more and more competition to develop, to provide more choice, increase investment and drive availability. The new regulatory framework under Ofcom is already reaping dividends. We shall be the only country in the G8 with near-universal coverage provided by a competitive private sector. The next challenge is for government and industry to work together to provide reasons for people to use broadband. The government is investing more than £1bn towards providing key public services with broadband connectivity."

"Liberal Democrats believe all UK citizens should have access to sufficient bandwidth for their needs at a reasonable price, and this should be seen as an ongoing process rather than a single target to 'do broadband'. The evidence to date is that the market is delivering services to most areas. Regulators should now ensure that this develops into a truly competitive market. The next challenge is to reap the social and economic benefits this can bring. Public services can become both more cost-efficient and more effective. Businesses can gain a competitive advantage. The primary role for government will be to provide education in how to take advantage of new technology."

"The Green Party is in favour of the use of telecommunications for travel substitution including telecommuting and videoconferencing, and we would introduce measures to aid growth in these sectors. We see the internet as a powerful liberating force, providing large amounts of valuable information at low cost to people almost everywhere. So we would press for broadband to be provided everywhere across the country, like gas and electricity. This would help reduce the pressure on people to move to the more economically active areas such as the south-east - so helping ameliorate high house prices there and low ones elsewhere."

"The Conservative Party believes the government's failure to create an adequate competitive environment is damaging, and that it should have a duty to promote competition and reduce regulation. The government's approach can be seen in its grant of £30m for broadband to the RDAs, which are the last bodies the government should use. The government should create a more competitive environment to encourage new entrants to the market, and should entrust the regulator with a remit to protect against market abuse until a competitive market evolves. It is for the regulator to protect consumers of national services and utilities, and to encourage progressive liberalisation of the marketplace to bring about universal access and a uniform and transparent tariff."