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...