Community holds key to broadband funding puzzle

Summary:The focus is on state and private funding for next-gen broadband, but community projects could help make the business case, says Malcolm Corbett

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.

Policy shifts
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.

Halfway house
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.

Utility-style broadband
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...

Topics: Broadband, Tech Industry

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