The government's announcement of an independent review into the issue of next-generation broadband is welcome, if a little belated.
Until now, the debate has stagnated. The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which comprises organisations ranging from the government and Ofcom to ISPs and content providers, is somehow still seriously considering questions such as: "Do we need next-generation access at all?", and "Does the UK need to keep pace with international competitors?".
Such questions are absurd. It is probably not the BSG itself that is at fault — it is almost a year now since the group called for a rollout to begin within two years — but rather a lack of initiative from rivals within the communications industry and, more disappointingly, the government itself.
Although we have an increasing number of fibre-rich neighbours, it is worthwhile drawing comparisons with our counterparts in Japan. There, the government set goals earlier this decade to take the lead in next-generation broadband deployment. At the time, the situation in Japan was not so different from that in the UK: we had BT as an incumbent provider, they had NTT.
Yet despite forcing NTT to promote competition by unbundling its connectivity, Japan is set to have all roadside cabinets made fibre-ready by the end of 2010. NTT is enthusiastically investing in the fibre roll-out. Beyond tax incentives, the Japanese government has spent very little. Yet somehow it is just happening.
Those who follow can learn from the mistakes of others, but following from too great a distance can be dangerous. This spring, NTT will launch a joint development forum with various business partners. The forum's membership will be similar to that of the BSG, but its focus will be on developing applications — for example, telemedicine and remote education, among others — to run on next-generation networks.
Without next-generation access, we will not be able to deploy such services here in the UK. And if we cannot deploy them, we most certainly will not be the ones to build them. What is at stake here is not just a matter of enabling faster YouTube downloads. We are frequently told that the UK is a services economy, but the approach to next-generation networks has been characterised by dithering over whether to participate in the services industry of the future.
The government's independent review will report this autumn. If the review is to result in real timetables rather than more talk, the demand for action should by then be impossible to ignore. That clamour needs to come from the UK's technology innovators and services sector, and it needs to start now.