Experts: Broadband access is priority over fibre

There should be greater focus on making broadband available to the UK's 'notspots' before concentrating on the rollout of faster next-generation networks, industry experts argue

The broadband industry needs to focus on making broadband available to more people in the UK before concentrating on the rollout of faster next-generation networks, according to industry experts.

Speaking at the Oxford Media Convention on Thursday, strategy and markets development partner for Ofcom, Peter Phillips, said wider availability should be the top broadband priority for the UK.

"It's even more important [than a next-generation rollout] to ensure that all UK residents have access to high-speed broadband," he said.

Speaking to ZDNet UK's sister site, silicon.com, chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, Anthony Walker, said the question of availability must also be tackled to increase uptake.

He said: "Where possible it is now time to address those 'notspots' in terms of availability and I think that's really on the basis that broadband is increasingly being seen as a basic utility for households, both in terms of the benefits of connectivity and also things like access to services such as BBC iPlayer and others."

Walker added: "There's a growing sense that there's an issue of social equity of opportunity in terms of being able to access broadband. It's something that's clearly of huge value to people."

Ofcom's Phillips said that with around 40 percent of UK households still without broadband, vulnerable groups — such as the elderly and low-income households — are being excluded from the benefits that broadband can bring, from awareness of what is happening in the local community to the ability to access e-government, health and community services.

Phillips added: "Many people simply aren't interested in broadband because they simply can't understand why it's relevant to their lives."

According to Anna Bradley, chair of the Communications Consumer Panel, barriers for consumers — such as a lack of knowledge or confidence in the web — also need to be removed for more people to engage with the internet.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that broadband as a percentage of total internet connections rose by just 1.3 percent between June and September 2008.

During the same period, total internet connections fell by 0.4 percent as a result of people moving off dial-up but not moving to broadband.

So what is the key to increasing the number of broadband users? Content appears to be king.

Jon Kingsbury, creative economy programme director at the lottery-funded National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, suggested providing the right content will boost take-up. "The services that could be provided by broadcasters are key to people adopting [broadband]," he told the Oxford Media Convention.

Ofcom's Phillips meanwhile highlighted the success of the BBC iPlayer and Project Canvas — an industry initiative to create common standards to help bring the internet to people's televisions — as initiatives that could promote broadband uptake.

There have already been hints from government that broadband access could soon become a right for Britons, after minister for communications, technology and broadcasting, Lord Stephen Carter, said universal broadband access could offer huge benefits to e-government.

The Digital Britain report by Lord Carter will outline proposals to support the growth of digital communications in the UK.

The interim report, expected to be published later this week, is rumoured to include a proposal to make broadband part of the universal service obligation that currently requires all UK households have access to a fixed telephone landline and narrowband internet.

Ways in which this could be funded have been subject to debate: some believe government funding is needed, while others, including BT, say mobile and other fixed-line operators should help foot the bill.

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