Lords to probe broadband promises
Peers have launched an inquiry to probe whether the government's flagship plans for super-fast broadband are up to speed.
The House of Lords Communications Committee - which boasts TV presenter Melvyn Bragg among its members - will examine the Â£530m strategy including the promise by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to install "the best super-fast broadband network in Europe by 2015".
The strategy requires town halls to draw up strategies for connecting up far-flung areas, and provide match funding, in order to tap into promised government grants. The government's pledge is for everyone to enjoy at least two megabits per second (2Mbps) and for 90% of homes and businesses to boast super-fast speeds of 24Mbps.
Announcing the inquiry, Lord Inglewood, the committee's Conservative chairman, said it would consider:
* Is the government's investment being effectively applied to develop maximum social and economic benefit?
* Is speed the best way of monitoring this?
* What is being done to prevent a digital backwater in areas where the roll out of superfast broadband isn't commercially attractive?
* What role could, or should, the different methods of delivery play in ensuring the superfast broadband network is fit for purpose?
* What anticipated changes in the use of digital communications over the next 20 years might affect strategic investment in digital infrastructure?
Lord Inglewood said: "Superfast broadband is clearly an important development across Britain, not just for economic growth, but also because it will impact on how people do things such as view media content, shop and even access healthcare.
"We want to look into the government's proposals to find out if its targets are likely to be met and whether it is being ambitious enough in its plans. Issues such as investment, Britain's market in fibre optic products and whether the advances in broadband provision will require regulatory changes are all things that need to be looked at to ensure the strategy works."
The inquiry comes after Hunt's department threatened to withdraw funding from three areas that had failed to draw up convincing strategies. Ministers will meet council chiefs after giving their strategies a 'red light' - meaning they are in deep trouble, with a deadline of the end of February looming fast.
The town halls in the spotlight are:
* Merseyside; Liverpool, Knowsley, St. Helens, Sefton, Wirral.
* Tyne and Wear; Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland.
* Bath and North East Somerset.