The future of broadband: And access for all – Fast internet for everyone, and a new tax to help pay for it

The 2,200-foot Royal Albert railway bridge, which links Cornwall to Devon across the river Tamar, is one of the best-loved achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a swashbuckling Victorian engineer. It is also a nice illustration of the risks of penny-pinching when building infrastructure. The bridge is designed to carry rails spaced seven feet (roughly two metres) apart, the standard used by Brunel on his Great Western Railway. But rails used by firms in other parts of the country were separated by less than five feet, and when the time came in 1846 for a parliamentary commission to decide on a national standard, it plumped for the cheaper, narrower option. Had it decided in Brunel’s favour, modern Britain’s slow and crowded trains would be bigger, smoother and faster.But false economies are obvious only in retrospect. When building infrastructure, governments walk a tricky line between counterproductive tight-fistedness and unnecessary gold-plating. A good modern example is internet access. On June 16th Lord Carter, the communications minister, announced plans to provide high-speed internet for all, as part of a sprawling report on “Digital Britain” that included musings on the BBC.

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