What we need is a next-generation broadband manifesto to counter the lack of vision and urgency displayed by our legislators, says Malcolm Corbett.
For those of us working to accelerate the pace of fibre rollout in the UK, February's report from the Parliamentary Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on broadband made depressing reading — not so much for the headline criticism of the government's proposed telephone tax, but for the paucity of vision and lack of urgency shown by our legislators.
The first paragraphs highlighted Britain's leading role in the 19th century development of telegraphy, going on to say once again that the UK "faces the question of how best to maintain its position as one of the world leaders in electronic communications".
Wake up, guys. The global rankings for fibre to the home published at the FTTH Conference in late February in Lisbon show we are far from being world leaders. According to the Fibre to the Home Council Europe, an industry-led body, Britain is unranked.
We do not have even the one percent of connections that would qualify us to "sit on the bench with Bulgaria", as my Community Broadband Network colleague, Adrian Wooster, commented. It really is lamentable. Not only are Japan, South Korea, the US and China ahead of us, but so are Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Portugal and Bulgaria.
But what of the vaunted competition between BT and Virgin Media to roll out superfast broadband? BT is aiming to deliver some fibre to the home as part of its plans, but the bulk of its rollout will be fibre to street cabinets and copper from there, delivering VSDL services. Virgin is offering an equivalent technology, Docsis 3.
An Ofcom speaker at February's FTTH Conference said this means Britain has 50 percent next-generation access coverage and so is doing very well. Perhaps. But only if you discount several key facts: BT and Virgin are largely competing for customers on the same territory; both technologies are heavily contended and heavily asymmetric, which means lower upstream bandwidth; and even more frustratingly for consumers, since VDSL is very distance-sensitive, we face the prospect of 'up to' speed offerings from ISPs for years to come.
Fibre to the cabinet is effectively the last throw of the dice for copper-based technologies. Outside the UK, this truth seems to have been accepted, judging by the major investments being made in fibre to the home. Other countries recognise that global competitiveness demands world-class connectivity.
While fibre-to-the-cabinet services may give us a temporary competitive equivalence with other countries, in the long run it is an approach that cannot compete with full fibre solutions, either in terms of bandwidth and therefore future services, or in terms of operational costs for operators.
In the UK, it seems we are still suffering from the delusion that fibre to the cabinet offering perhaps 40Mbps — if we are lucky enough to be offered such a product — will somehow put us on a level playing field with business in, say, the Netherlands, which can enjoy perhaps 1Gbps symmetric connectivity.
The issues are political and the election is looming, so here is what I would like to see in the next-generation broadband manifesto:
1. Obtain global ranking
Let's get the UK into the global rankings with at least one percent of homes and businesses connected direct to fibre within a year. That goal would mean about 250,000 connections — around 247,000 more than we have now, according to Point Topic.
Tall order? Yes. But if we fail to inject a sense of ambition and urgency into the debate, we will still be talking, rather than doing, for years to come. We need to get off the starting blocks. Fibre is the answer, the only questions are timing, cost and who pays.
2. Improve cost calculations
Get a better handle on the costs of deployment. The Broadband Stakeholder Group report into the costs and economics of next-generation broadband, published in September 2008, used a theoretical model to estimate the costs of full national fibre deployment at about £29bn.
That figure was double previous estimates and seems far more expensive than the price of live projects...
...under development. Understanding the real costs will help project promoters, investors and the public sector assess the true viability of projects.
3. Exploit existing infrastructure
Improve conditions for alternative investment by seeking to reuse existing infrastructure — ducts and poles — where possible. As Lorne Mitchell argues: "Imagine a world where all the bus companies own and maintain their own roads and only buses can travel on those roads." It is daft.
Where possible, we need to open up BT's and Virgin's infrastructure, along with public-sector assets. BT has already said it will play ball. We need to start creating publicly available duct atlases to identify where usable infrastructure exists.
4. End fibre tax
Cut the Gordian knot of business rates that tax commercial fibre deployment to the point of making it non-viable. This issue has dogged the broadband community for so many years that the protagonists have all grown old and grey while the debate grinds on.
5. Provide public funds
Public funding for some areas will be necessary. Where public investment is contemplated — through the government's Universal Service Commitment (USC) funding, a next-generation fund derived either from the landline levy or BBC funding proposed by the Tories, or through regional and local funding — we need a clear hierarchy of preferred technologies with fibre to the home at the top of the list.
The USC may have been set at a minimum of 2Mbps, but let's show a lot more ambition than that. The range of social and economic benefits accruing from fibre deployment will be myriad, making public investments very good value for money.
6. Back local initiatives
Support regional and local initiatives to create open access networks. Regional and local players are already demonstrating an appetite for innovation and novel ways of bringing resources and partnerships together.
Let's build their capacity, maximise the opportunities for investment and create a truly vibrant and competitive next-generation broadband environment. For those contemplating projects, a helpful starting point is the excellent fibre-to-the-home business guide published in Lisbon.
Another is the Next Gen 10 series of events being planned to bring together projects — actual and aspiring, suppliers, users, investors and policy-makers.
7. Support standards
Support standardisation and integration of local and regional schemes into a truly competitive market for new services. By ensuring that projects work to common standards, consumers will get more choice and we will facilitate widespread rollout of fibre as quickly as possible.
My organisation, the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (Inca), has been set up by a range of public, private and community organisations to develop this work — along with some government support. We will shortly announce important new steps to help the market for next-generation services develop.
8. Encourage innovation hubs
Support the development of innovation hubs — such as the Living Labs proposed by a number of cities and local projects. Paris has the fabulous Cap Digital project that supports a vibrant network of young digital businesses exploiting fibre-to-the-home infrastructure to create new products and services.
Cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham and London all have vibrant digital and creative sectors. If we build an open high-capacity, symmetrical fibre infrastructure, we will facilitate innovation and new business development.
Five years ago, hardly anyone had heard of social media. Today if Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. The iPhone arrived in late 2007 and Google Android last year. Already both have vibrant eco-systems of developers delivering and marketing innovative applications to hungry users.
Let's do the same with fibre to the home. As one of the speakers in Lisbon said last week: "Give us the glass and we'll break it."
If we put this manifesto into practice, we shall create the conditions to build the new telecoms infrastructure that we need to underpin the economy and social wellbeing of our country for the 21st century. In the process, we shall honour the legacy of our past achievements and truly become world leaders again.
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.