Discussions about funding next-generation broadband have focused on state intervention and private investment, but there are other ways of moving things forward, says Malcolm Corbett.
The Digital Economy Bill continues its stately passage through parliament, with most of the argument about broadband centred on three issues: the 2Mbps fix for notspots; the proposed 50p-per-month tax on fixed lines to support next-generation rollout; and provisions to tackle file-sharing.
On the first two issues the political dividing lines between the main parties have been clear — at least until recently. Unsurprisingly, the 2Mbps basic service has been castigated as too limited an ambition by the Conservatives and many others.
To support next-generation broadband, the government favours the telephone tax. The Tories oppose this approach and instead favour opening up BT's infrastructure and encouraging local councils to do more. But Tory policy seems to be shifting.
Shadow chancellor George Osborne has announced plans to use some of the BBC licence fee to fund rollout — the proportion that is presently spent on the digital switchover. It's a tax, just a different sort of tax.
Those of us keen to see the fastest possible deployment of next-generation broadband welcome any moves that create investment and help make the case.
BT says that reaching beyond the 60 percent or so of the population deemed commercially do-able is hard work using current funding models. Similarly Virgin Media, while making the running in advertising high-speed broadband, is fixed to its current 50 percent footprint with limited extensions.
Even where investment is taking place, many argue that the preferred fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) solution is at best a halfway house, and that the emphasis should be on full fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) deployment.
Indeed, cities such as Manchester regard current commercial plans as so sub-optimal that, in January, the Manchester Digital Development Agency announced the award of a contract to fibre company Geo to provide FTTP in the Oxford Road area of the city.
But is the argument about the limits of private investment and state funding the only way forward? Is there something that we as citizens in our own communities can do to change the dynamics?
Many have been inspired by the OnsNet project in the market town of Nuenen in the Netherlands. There, the local community organised themselves and formed a co-operative to build a new fibre network in the town. An intelligent approach to community engagement plus local ownership achieved very high levels of take-up. By adding limited public subsidy and long-term private investment, the project stacked up financially and the network was built.
OnsNet has been so successful that Dutch incumbent KPN is experimenting with the model in different towns and cities. They are not alone; community engagement has long been used in Scandinavian countries to improve the case for utility-style broadband investment.
Can a similar approach have an impact here in the UK? Companies such as H2O Networks and Geo base their plans on long-term investment models. Innovative schemes in the public sector such as the Digital Region in South Yorkshire...
...are aiming for very widespread coverage. But so far we haven't seen a next-gen scheme that includes direct investment from the local community as part of the mix.
That looks set to change with plans being developed by the forward-looking town of Alston in Cumbria.
In a previous article I described Alston's ambitious fibre plans. To ensure they did not get left behind by the first-generation broadband revolution, Alston created Cybermoor — a community co-op that deployed wireless broadband across one of the most sparsely populated areas of England. In the process they inspired many other communities.
Now they have embarked on a project aiming to transform Cybermoor into Fibremoor. Their ambition boils down to three 100s: 100Mbps per second — a network that is capable of delivering symmetric, future-proof broadband; 100 percent coverage — no-one left behind; and £100 per year, or thereabouts, for the basic connection cost, roughly the price of the current telephone-line rental.
Alston are working on a community investment scheme to help get the network out to the farthest reaches of the community. If a viable model can be developed in Alston, it can work anywhere.
Others are looking to community models as well. The East of England Development Agency has recently developed a policy that envisages community investment as a key strand to support next-gen rollout in rural areas. Manchester has ambitions to create a multi-stakeholder vehicle to develop its network, with a degree of community or co-operative involvement.
This form of community self-help has deep roots. The principles of co-operative enterprise were developed in Britain in the 19th century, and spread rapidly around the world. They have been applied in many settings, often to overcome market failure.
Alston, Nuenen and the Scandinavians are not alone in forming co-ops to tackle telecoms issues — about 10 percent of Americans buy their phone and broadband services from local co-operative providers.
So if we all form a broadband equivalent of the Archers' community shop, will it be 'job done'? Not quite, but it will help. Colleagues at the Community Broadband Network have researched models showing that adding community investment into the mix could be the crucial element that helps make the business case stand up.
At a time of private-sector caution and public-sector constraint, this might just be the factor that tips the balance in favour of deployment sooner, rather than a lot, lot later. 'Nobody left behind' means 'Everybody involved'.
Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the new Independent Networks Co-operative Association, which represents organisations building and operating independent next-generation broadband networks in the UK.