When narrow minds meet next-gen broadband

When narrow minds meet next-gen broadband

Summary: The announcement of an independent review into next-generation broadband should be a call to arms for the UK's tech innovators

TOPICS: Networking

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.

Topic: Networking

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  • Islands of Fibre

    There are many examples in the UK and in other European countries that demonstrate how seperating the provision of the access infrustructure from the provision of services is a significant key to solving the challenge of investment in fibre as a replacement for local copper networks.

    It is inevitable that there will be for some time 'islands of fibre' in much the same way that five years ago we had islands of ADSL provision. This time however the gap in economic advantage between the haves and have-nots will be even greater.

    There is no need for a '1-size fits all' approach - especialially if that '1-size' is defined by those with narrow minds. And with sensible regulation focused on interoperability and carrier neutrality there is no need to worry about new forms of localised monopolies. Open Access means that these networks are open to any service provider and in the best examples customers can switch providers just like changing channels on your TV.

    See the CMA editorial at:

    David Brunnen
  • Killer apps for fibre

    The issue of applications is an incredibly frustrating chicken-and-egg situation. The pipe-providers definitely do want a hand in that scene (see BT's burgeoning apps marketplace) but at the same time they want to see a killer app before they invest in fibre. Kiyoshi Mori, the Japanese minister who spoke a month ago at the UK/Japan next-gen broadband conference, spoke very sensibly of "seed before need". If only his counterparts here were so clued up.

    See this story for the perversity of it all: http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,39291006,00.htm
    David Meyer
  • killer apps?

    This apparent search for a killer app to justify the investment is very odd. Surely the great advantage of fibre over copper is that instead of only being able to deliver only two things concurrently (low-quality telephony and Internet access) the single fibre to the home can deliver multiple concurrent services from multiple suppliers.

    It is the aggregate of all these services that justifies the Access capacity provision. 'Killer app' thinking is rooted in the old world where Access and Services are bundled. With open access (carrier neutral) designs nothing ever needs to be un-bundled because the local fibre network is from inception never ever bundled. Take for example the Swedish town of Vasteras where the local fibre network can be used to access more than 86 services from 30 different suppliers - many of whom are offering niche services alongside the more obvious TV and Telephony services.

    A typical future family home may have 2 or more different Internet services (for business, domestic and educational use) plus telephony providers, TV and audio channels and a range other always-on services including security and surveillance, meter-reading, environmental monitors and various community services.

    We have to get away from the old notion that the access connection and the services are inflexibly tied together. Changing services and providers should be just like selecting different TV programmes. Without this approach we will miss out on much of the benefit of fibre, especially the opportunities to enable easy market entry for a vast range of innovative and competitive services.

    Potential investors in local fibre networks should get their heads around how to maximise the number of service providers available at the local head-end so that the access capacity can be sold umpteen times over - and perhaps a good starting point would be to look at the numerous examples that have sprung up all over Europe in recent years.
  • Local fibre for local people

    I wonder whether the eventual way of doing this will be tied in with municipal funding, or even the utilities companies getting in on the act. Seems to be working in... ummm... the Netherlands, I seem to recall (correct me if I'm wrong).

    If you haven't seen it already, check out the story we did on the European Commission preparing a "recommendation" on the issue:

    David Meyer