Report maps out Britain's broadband future

An independent report says now is not the time for public investment in next-generation access in the UK, but there's plenty to be done by government and regulators

A major, independent review into the delivery of next-generation broadband access in the UK has been completed, with the resulting report recommending a patchwork of fixed and wireless technologies.

Friday's report, entitled The next phase of broadband UK: Action now for long-term competitiveness, was compiled by Francesco Caio, the former head of Cable & Wireless and currently vice chairman of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. His recommendations for the government stopped short of a call for immediate, major government investment in a fibre rollout or, indeed, for major regulatory change, but gave a comprehensive list of steps that Caio believes should be taken.

These steps include the creation of a framework for next-generation access (NGA) delivery and the setting of a switchover date from the current generation of broadband. Also included was the recommendation for internet service providers (ISPs) to be forced to make their traffic-management policies clear to their customers, thus spurring them on to upgrade their networks in order to compete with one another. NGA, the focus of Caio's report, is a term used for the technology that gets that high-speed connectivity from the exchange to the customer's premises — also known as the 'last mile'.

"The business case could be justified if you, as an operator, have concerns about your ability to retain your customers if someone with faster broadband comes along," said Caio, who was speaking at the report's launch at the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR), alongside business minister Shriti Vadera.

Caio also called on the government to liaise with the construction industry to make sure all new buildings are fibre-ready, and relax restrictions on overhead fibre cabling. Such infrastructure currently has to be buried, which is not cost-effective in long-distance, rural deployments. He also advised better co-ordination in streetwork planning to make it more financially viable for providers to roll out fibre in urban areas.

The report also called on Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, to accelerate the release of radio spectrum that could be used for mobile broadband, such as that due for release under an auction that is currently being held up by mobile-operator litigation.

Next-generation networks (NGNs) involve a fibre-based national infrastructure for broadband delivery as far as telephone exchanges.  BT recently announced a £1.5bn investment in rolling out NGA to 10 million UK homes, and Virgin Media is about to provide speeds of up to 50Mbps to its customers. Both companies came in for praise from Caio for their work, which he cited as evidence that the market was actively pursuing NGA without governmental intervention.

Much of the debate surrounding the incentives for getting operators to roll out NGA has focused on fibre to the home (FTTH) or fibre to the street cabinet (FTTC). Caio, however, was keen to emphasise that the provision of NGA in the UK is likely to also involve wireless technology. He laid out a vision of a patchwork rollout of NGA — mixing fibre and wireless technologies, and national and local authority-led deployments.

Caio said the UK's existing copper-based broadband access infrastructure would be outmoded within the next five to seven years. "The country will need, at a certain point, some level of faster broadband," he said. "[NGA is] not just fibre but increasingly...

...a patchwork of fixed and wireless," Caio said. "Wireless will play also as an important competitive stimulus to fixed operators." He refused to give his definition of 'high-speed broadband', calling it a "moving target". "Symmetry will be increasingly important and latency even more important," he said." One should be careful about jumping to the conclusion that fibre is the only answer."

Caio also refused to call on the government to force service providers to roll out their services everywhere in the country. "My message to government is: don't commit to anything today, because the technology is changing," he said. "Local [deployments] and wireless might even provide coverage to areas that, today, are not covered. It is too early for the government to issue a policy of universal coverage for next-generation broadband."

Pointing out that internet access will become less dependent on the PC as embedded systems become more prevalent in the home, Caio said: "We're now done with the first phase of PC broadband and web-surfing technology".

Caio had already presented his findings to the prime minister, Gordon Brown, earlier in the day, and told the audience at BERR that he had come away from that meeting with the impression that Brown found something in the recommendations "to include in the political agenda".

Vadera told the audience that the government would "take forward the recommendations in the review", later clarifying her statement to say the recommendations were accepted "in principle", and each point would now be examined in detail. She also emphasised that many of the recommendations were for Ofcom, rather than government.

Caio urged Ofcom to push forward negotiations with operators, who have been calling for regulatory clarity prior to investing. "[Such negotiations] ain't going to be a walk in the park," said Caio. "You will hear a lot of screaming."

He also suggested several ways in which operators could raise the funds to roll out fibre: through billing, interconnection with other operators, wholesale operation, and potentially through advertising strategies such as that exemplified by the Phorm scheme. However, Caio stressed that such advertising schemes would have to be made explicit to consumers. "I don't think this is the place for ideology," he said. "It is the place for consumer transparency and clarity of rules."

Ofcom welcomed the review, specifically its references to public-policy issues, such as planning and streetworks. "We are working with all stakeholders to ensure investment and competition in the development of super-fast broadband in the UK," a Friday statement said.

In a statement, BT said it welcomes the Caio report as "a useful contribution to the NGA debate, and agrees with the broad conclusion that the market, rather than the state, should be the catalyst for fibre rollout. We will work closely in partnership with [regional development agencies and] other regional and public bodies, along with industry, to that end. As we are just embarking on the rollout of next-generation services, it may be premature to try and predict which areas will not be served by the market. We agree, therefore, that, at the present time, public-sector action in most areas should be focused primarily on ensuring demand for these services is developed and aggregated where possible."

The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which recently issued its own costing for a potential fibre rollout in the UK, was also in favour of the report. "Importantly, this report states that, although there is no government money on the table, there is a key leadership role for both government and Ofcom, and that everyone involved in the provision of broadband must work more closely together if we are to address the challenges of deployment of next-generation, super-fast broadband in the UK," said BSG chairman Kip Meek.

Ofcom itself will release its own review into NGA provision later this month.


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