In yesterday’s Budget, Alastair Darling stated government’s support for the knowledge economy and the communications sector, and set out a number of policies affecting the broadband industry. Broadly, the top-line statements were as follows.
– Government re-iterates its support for the broadband universal service commitment set out in the Digital Britain Interim Report; will consult on using Digital Switchover Help Scheme underspend to fund the policy.
– Government will review the powers and duties of Ofcom “in advance of the Digital Britain Report” so that it can “strike the right balance between delivering competition and encouraging investment”.
– Government’s doubling of the capital cost allowances to 40% could aid up to £10bn on investment in communications infrastructure.
– Government has approved the South Yorkshire Digital Region next generation broadband project.
The BSG has published its response to these measures. While we support the government’s commitment to the broadband universal service commitment, we are concerned that the proposals set out on next generation broadband will not support more widespread investment and coverage than current market commitments.
It is not clear that the one year capital cost allowances increase, while providing a useful stimulus for existing investment commitment, will incentivise next generation broadband deployment given the timescales of investment and deployment, which will take many years (although it may have some limited impact in incentivising Virgin Media to invest, who are planning small expansions to their footprint over the next year).
More importantly, the characteristics of the costs of deployment mean that specific, targeted measures are required in areas where market-led deployment will not reach, rather than a blanket subsidy across all areas including those that are already commercially viable.
However, a potentially more significant development is the review of Ofcom’s powers and duties. Essentially, this would appear to come down to re-focusing Ofcom more towards promoting investment, as opposed to promoting competition. While not necessarily opposing principles (stronger competition should spur investment), there is certainly a balance to be struck, particularly given the scale of the investment required for next generation broadband.
This reflects an issue the BSG raised in January 2004 in its 3rd Annual Report (pp116-121). There was a concern then that the focus on short-term consumer interest could drive static efficiency in the market, at the expense of the dynamic efficiencies of investment.
The announcement of this review could be a sign that this argument has found support amongst senior policymakers.
Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG