Has the UK’s botched broadband roll-out really hit plans for BBC reform?

Telecoms experts are sceptical of MPs’ claims that the government’s delayed plan for gigabit internet is the biggest barrier to making the BBC online-only.

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Parliament’s Culture Select Committee warned on Thursday morning (25 March) that efforts to reform the BBC’s licence fee have been thrown into doubt by the delayed roll-out of full-fibre broadband.

The committee’s chair, Julian Knight, said that instead of “coming up with a workable alternative” to the licence fee, the government has “sealed its own fate through a failure to develop a broadband infrastructure that would allow serious consideration of other means to fund the BBC”.

It’s an eye-catching comment, and one that has attracted considerable media attention. But is it true?

“The most polite way of putting it is to say that the comments are slightly tenuous,” says James Barford, director of telecoms research at Enders Analysis.

As Barford explains – and as the committee’s report notes – there are 190,000 premises in the UK that don’t have access to what Ofcom describes as “decent” broadband capable of streaming high-definition video.  

Knight’s argument rests on the idea that if the government hadn’t reneged on its promise to provide access to gigabit broadband to every household by 2025, these homes would have been connected in time for the next BBC charter renewal in 2027, clearing the way for a subscriptions-based online alternative to the licence fee. He argues that reform is now impossible, as it could leave these households without access to the BBC.

[see also: How the BBC can defeat the grave threat from the Conservatives]

But this is far from the whole story – and it’s where the argument starts to unravel. The 190,000 homes that lack a “decent” internet connection, says Barford, are only a small fraction of the total number that would be cut off if the BBC went online-only.

The select committee’s report acknowledges this. “It is estimated that 11.3 million people in the UK do not have the basic digital skills required to ‘thrive’ in today’s increasingly digital world, and there are approximately 7.5 per cent of UK adults who have never been online.” 

What’s more, the committee reports that Arqiva – the company that handles broadcast transmissions in the UK – “told us that it is estimated that as many as 1.8 million households could lose television and public service broadcasting services if they were entirely internet-based”. That is nearly ten times the number who Knight says could lose out as a result of poor broadband connectivity.

Although Arqiva can be expected to champion the importance of broadcast in an increasingly online world, Barford confirms the concerns. “A significant number of people don’t choose to get broadband at all,” he says. “They also have to go through the mechanics of getting their broadband connected to their TV in the right way. The problem in the mechanics of it is much greater than 190,000. But it is only 190,000 that is the problem in terms of the actual infrastructure, and that number is declining every year.”

Curiously, while Knight’s statement on the report leads on broadband infrastructure, this point isn’t mentioned at all in the official summary of the report.

This isn’t to excuse the government’s record on broadband. Britain’s internet provision is woeful in comparison with its European neighbours: more than 50 per cent of homes in Iceland, Belarus, Sweden, Spain and Latvia have full-fibre connections, compared to just 2.8 per cent in the UK.

But while there are many legitimate concerns about turning Britain’s public service broadcaster into an online-only subscriptions business, the government’s botched broadband roll-out shouldn't be rated highly among them.

[See also: Harry Lambert on the BBC and the battle for truth]

Oscar Williams is a senior journalist at the New Statesman covering technology.

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