UK must be bold for super-fast broadband

UK must be bold for super-fast broadband

Summary: Super-fast broadband and UK competitiveness are inextricably linked, so we can't afford to get next-generation wrong, says Malcolm Corbett


With so much at stake, including UK competitiveness and the delivery of public services, we need to look at the next-generation broadband problem from more than just a commercial investor's point of view, says Malcolm Corbett.

In February, 3,000 people gathered in Milan to discuss next-generation broadband at the annual Fibre to the Home (FTTH) Council conference. This is a prestigious event backed by many of the big cable and equipment manufacturers.

European commissioner Neelie Kroes spoke about how access to super-fast broadband is at the heart of the European Digital Agenda and central to our economic future. To back up this policy agenda, the European Investment Bank is making a solid financial commitment of €2.5 to €4bn (£2.1bn to £3.4bn) per year — and seeking projects to co-finance.

Projects there are aplenty — with speakers from Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Russia, Iceland, Italy and Turkey. Even tiny Andorra is deploying a 100Mbps, symmetric, fibre network to all its households and businesses. Business cases were promoted and dissected, regulators challenged and vendors showed off their latest gizmos. None of the projects presented was British.

Global rankings of fibre-to-the-premises deployment

Each year the FTTH Council presents the global rankings of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) deployment — a benchmark for how well different countries are doing. This year, for the first time, Turkey joined the global elite, ranked 26th after the world leaders like Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, the USA and Russia. The UK is not ranked at all since we do not reach the minimum level of one percent of premises connected to fibre.

Britain broadband solutions

Fibre-to-the-cabinet is described by some as the last throw of the dice for the copper phone network. Photo credit: David Meyer

Should we care? According the European Commission and our own government, the answer is yes. Super-fast broadband is growing in political significance. In 2010, the government published its strategy, Britain's Superfast Broadband Future, and confirmed a commitment to spend £530m from the BBC licence fee to assist rural deployment until 2015. After that they expect to add another £300m.

A big question is how much of this funding will go towards deploying fully future-proofed FTTP — supplemented with wireless? Or will we instead find ourselves financing mainly fibre-to-street cabinets (FTTC), described by some as the last throw of the dice for the copper phone network?

The government's ambition is to have "the best super-fast broadband in Europe", but what will this ambition mean in rural areas? Some are arguing that it could mean speeds of just 5Mbps.

FTTP wireless fix

Ideally, we should fix the next-generation broadband problem once and for all and go for predominantly FTTP-wireless technology wherever possible. The issue of course is finance.

The combined resources of BT, Virgin Media and the government are not enough to give us a fully future-proofed network. Therefore, we need to get more creative. Arguably, with the right demand profile and the right regulatory framework, installing fibre should be a pretty safe, long-term investment. But it's a hard stretch in rural areas.

We need to look at the issue from more than just a commercial investor's point of view. With the public sector involved, other factors should come into play. In terms of local economic development, fibre provides an affordable communications infrastructure for innovative small firms and thus can help regions be more competitive.

That's why Manchester is investing in a fibre network in the centre of the city. They want the creative, digital sector to benefit from the same high-speed, symmetric, low-cost services as their counterparts in Amsterdam and other parts of Europe. Other cities, such as Gateshead, have come to similar conclusions. The same argument can be made for firms in rural areas.

Why should people in rural areas have to move to cities to get decent broadband? What about those who can't move?

Economic development and competitiveness

Why should they have to move to cities to get decent broadband, and what about those who can't move? Whether we are looking at urban or rural areas, we need to factor arguments about economic development and competitiveness into the equation.

On top of those factors are benefits to public services, which could be huge in terms of improved contact with citizens, home-based telehealth and better access to educational resources — and reduced costs. In these times of economic stringency, combining cost savings with improved services is surely the primary goal for public service.

Finally there are all of us, citizens and consumers in our communities. Connecting our homes and businesses to fibre will cost...

Topics: Broadband, Government UK

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  • The secret is to get the fibre out to the hardest to reach areas, and that will also improve access for others on the way. Market forces will then play catch up in the urban areas. All talk of cabinets will soon disappear.
    All the urban folk who say we should move into cities if we want decent access must realise you can't pick up a farm and relocate. If the nhs, education and government want to save money by going digital and getting everyone online then we need to have a fit for purpose connection too. Only fibre can give us this, so that is what we have to do. It isn't a question of speed, its a question of physics, providing a futureproof solution and dragging this country out of the copper slow lane and into the digital revolution.
  • It needs the investment and that must come from government. For FTTP it all comes down to the huge cost of digging up the streets.

    And getting fibre to rural areas will not always improve access for others 'on the way'.

    But is there the demand? 50% of the country have VM and what's the take up of high speeds. Many people must be happy with their existing connections being part of the digital revolution.
  • A "big society" approach certainly makes lots of sense. A straight economic analysis fails to take into account the wider benefits of FTTP, and so the tri-partite solution outlined by Malcolm seems eminently suitable. My real concern with this is that LAs are so inwardly focussed on the short term right now - thanks to Mr Pickles et al - that getting them to see the longer term strategic sense of the FTTP roadmap is not straightforward. Add the technical complexities of the debate into the mix, and I can see many LSs opting for the simpler solution handing over a bundle of cash to BT in return for a second class, but easy, fix.
    How can we make it equally easy for the public sector to buy in to the FTTP option?
    Graham Mitchell
  • Dunno Graham, I think they need physics lessons. All the public sector are falling for the telco hype. Looks like lancashire has gone the way of cornwall, and cumbria is heading that way...
    o dear me.
  • If it is true that "all the public sector are falling for the telco hype", then we need to understand why that is, understand better why community-led approaches are not getting pursued, and take appropriate action. Is anyone doing that research?

    As I noted above the impact of the cuts should not be underestimated, and while a 'big society' approach is laudable, many in the public sector will be looking for a quick fix on this issue, if they bother to do anything at all. Tub-thumping is good at raising awareness of the issues and possibilities, but when it comes to real world solutions that local authority lawyers and finance geeks are happy to sign off on, they want robust and proven models, paperwork and processes that give them comfort, so in that respect I imagine that the incumbent option is attractive, where the community led option looks risky and untried. That is the hill that we have to climb.
    Graham Mitchell
  • There is a big difference between businesses close together in a city centre who need high bandwidth, greater than available from current suppliers, and ones scattered across rural areas where the majority just need a working service like the rest of us.
  • FTTH should be available for every home in the next 15 years . NZ has it.