Promise of universal broadband web access

Every household in the country will be guaranteed access to broadband internet, according to a draft report by Lord Carter on the future of the telecoms and media industries.

Lord Carter, the communications minister, will propose a "universal service commitment" to broadband - akin to the guarantee offered on postal services and fixed-line telephones - that by 2012 would provide minimum download speeds of 2 megabits per second to every household that wants it, according to people who have seen a draft of his report, entitled Digital Britain. Such speeds enable people to watch video online, including the BBC iPlayer.

The government sees the -communications sector as a growth industry for the country that can help boost the economy and ease its reliance on financial services.

The proposal for universal broadband access is expected to be the centrepiece of a report due for publication this month. About 40 per cent of homes did not have broadband by last year, according to Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, and some households - especially in remote areas - lacked the necessary infrastructure to secure it.

Yesterday, Lord Carter - the former head of Ofcom - told a meeting at Westminster that broadband was no longer seen as a "niche service for the technologically keen". "It is an enabling and transformatory service and therefore we have to look at how we universalise it," he added.

The task of delivering on the commitment would rest with the private sector but fall on a combination of fixed-line and mobile operators because it is likely to be too expensive to roll out wired broadband networks to all.

BT, under the government's universal service obligation, must provide fixed-line phone services and narrowband internet access to every household that wants them. Ofcom estimated in 2006 that the obligation cost BT £57m-£74m each year.

BT said any universal broadband commitment could cost "much more" than its existing obligation, and should be funded by mobile as well as fixed-line operators, plus broadcasters and web content owners.

However, the idea of using wireless networks for universal broadband is threatened by a bitter dispute between mobile operators and Ofcom over the release of radio spectrum capable of supplying internet access.

If no settlement is reached, the report says the government will "impose a solution".

While the government has come out against extensive public funding for broadband networks, the report does not rule out some "fiscal relief". However, the Treasury may yet veto any financial support.

The Department for Culture and the Department for Business said the report was "still at the very early stages of drafting".

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