A recent broadband industry event in London marks a major shift in the approach adopted by policy-makers to super-fast connections, says Malcolm Corbett.
In July, 140 people crammed into the conference room at the Department for Business to hear ministers and officials describe their new broadband policies.
Billed as the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) Industry Day, discussion centred on two key issues: the Universal Service Commitment (USC) — guaranteeing everyone broadband speeds of at least 2Mbps — and plans to roll out super-fast next-generation broadband into areas BT doesn't consider commercially viable.
Headlines focused on the announcement by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and communications minister Ed Vaizey that plans to guarantee the USC by 2012 were being pushed back to 2015, which met with howls of rage from rural campaigners. Their reaction was understandable, but the headlines didn't capture the full importance of the day.
Hunt and Vaizey explained that the £200m set aside for the USC wasn't really enough money — and certainly not enough in the short term to guarantee future-proofed solutions.
Instead, BDUK will undertake several exercises that will look to the market for ways of rolling out super-fast broadband more widely and to tackle an irreducible core of 160,000 premises that can't get broadband at all.
There will be public subsidy, probably in the region of £150m per year. But the government, admitting it doesn't have all the answers, wants us all to get creative.
The ambition exhibited by ministers and their honesty about the means available was impressive. There isn't a big pot of central government money available, and they weren't talking about a top-down approach where Whitehall thinks it knows all the answers.
Instead, they are seeking a partnership approach working with industry, local government and communities. Jeremy Hunt described this as "a national policy with a local approach".
BDUK is being set up to act as advisers and, to some extent, bankers to local schemes and they are talking about providing investment, rather than simple subsidy.
Alongside a paper exercise to look at potential solutions to USC problems in three areas — Swansea, Sutherland and near Lancaster — BDUK is asking regional development agencies and local authorities to draw up lists of potential projects for super-fast broadband leading to funding of £5m to £10m each for three market testing pilots.
Contract awards are expected in the second quarter of 2011. The government is keen these projects provide the sort of information on technical and commercial models that can be rolled out more widely.
When it comes to the definition of 'super-fast', Jeremy Hunt seems to have hijacked...
...the term from BT. He talks about it meaning at least 50Mbps symmetric connections by 2015. Current fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC)/VDSL technologies can't deliver that, so Hunt really means extending fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) as widely as possible.
What does this all mean in practice? For those without any broadband, or very slow broadband today, it looks like further delay — but that assumes the original plan was feasible.
For Hunt and Vaizey's policy to work, quite a few ducks have to be brought into line. First, work on infrastructure sharing — ducts and telegraph poles — needs to bear fruit.
About 70 to 80 percent of the costs of investment will go into digging holes and filling them in again, so anything that can facilitate infrastructure sharing to reduce these costs will help the investment case.
Another problem is affordable backhaul connections from local or district schemes connecting them to the internet. Here, public sector networks can play an important role, assuming their use is allowed.
Last year, research conducted by the Community Broadband Network for the North West Development Agency showed public-sector networks extending well beyond the urban centres into rural Cumbria — areas that the private sector finds deeply unattractive. Bringing some of these networks into play makes can dramatically change the potential for rural rollout.
Thirdly, local authorities, employers, statutory agencies and communities themselves have a big role to play in working out how to tackle problems in their areas.
Case for rollout
Getting the demand profile right, finding investment from alternative private, public and community sources — perhaps matched against BDUK investment — will undoubtedly improve the case for rollout. We aren't just talking about rural areas — urban areas need fibre to the premises, too.
This last area presents a big challenge — getting a range of key local organisations to understand the issues and sign up to the local super-fast broadband delivery plan.
To succeed, local authorities need to be brave, private-sector players nimble, and communities determined — and they will need support. In essence it is David Cameron's Big Society message delivered to the broadband world: yes, government will help, but really it is up to us.
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.