Analysis: Aggregating public sector demand was floated in 2003: perhaps the timing is better now
Yesterday's Spring Budget - derided by some commentators as the dullest in recent memory - revives a Blair-era idea for supporting the roll out of broadband.
The proposal is that public sector bodies can aggregate their needs to make building networks in rural areas worthwhile, then businesses and households can reap the benefits.
The Budget document says the Government will invest £200 million to fund a programme of local projects to test ways of speeding up the delivery of new full-fibre broadband networks. These will involve “bringing together local public sector customers, to create enough broadband demand to reduce the financial risk of building new full-fibre networks”.
Other proposals include connecting public sector buildings and opening up public sector assets, such as existing ducts, for fibre to be laid more cheaply.
In addition, the new Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund will be launched in the spring, with plans for government investment of £400 million to be at least matched by private sector investors. This is aimed at giving developers increased access to commercial finance.
Veterans of the local government IT scene will recall previous attempts at this strategy. In summer 2003, the Labour Government’s e-commerce minister Stephen Timms (pictured) announced plans for schools and the NHS to share the procurement of broadband networks to get a better deal from suppliers and enable the building of infrastructure in otherwise unviable parts of the country. Businesses and householders would then be able to piggy-back.
"It's going to be a powerful mechanism for competitive interest," Timms told the Guardian at the time.
Alas Blair-era aggregation failed because the plan ran foul of two failed government initiatives: English regional government and the NHS National Programme for IT. The NHS national programme made a fetish of steering clear of other arms of the public sector while the regional programme famously foundered after the 2004 referendum in the north-east.
Perhaps the latest stab at aggregation is better timed.