2010: A broadband odyssey

The head of broadband campaigning group ABC claims the public and private sector must prepare for the UK's future high-speed networking needs now

The Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC) was launched last year by several of Britain's leading broadband activists. It is pushing government and industry to make high-speed Internet access available across the UK, and supports individuals who want to create their own community broadband networks.

ZDNet UK caught up with Brian Condon, who was appointed as ABC's first chief executive in November 2003, at the Wireless LAN Event in London this week.

Britain is well-stocked with organisations related to broadband. What does ABC bring to the table, and why are you a part of the group?
I got involved with the Access to Broadband Campaign after attending their first conference in July 2003. I'd started my own business that year, and then discovered I couldn't get broadband. So I began investigating whether I could set up by own broadband network, perhaps by using satellite, read about ABC and pitched up at their conference. That was a great event, and it was so exciting that the guys running it were clearly going places.

ABC tackles broadband through a different agenda. Usually, people campaign against things rather than for them. ABC campaigns for affordable broadband across the UK. We need universal broadband coverage, otherwise there is both an economic and a social problem.

And what are your priorities? What do you hope to achieve as head of ABC?
My real interest is the 2010 agenda, the issue of what Broadband Britain will look like then. DSL is great, and a fantastic improvement on dial-up, but we still have the issue that 10 to 20 percent of people won't be able to get ADSL. And as we move forward there will be a set of people for whom DSL won't be enough. We need to prepare now, and start thinking about the model should be for 2010. It would be great if everyone could get a gigabit per second if they wanted it.

Does that mean that a whole new telecommunications network needs to be built?
ABC is technology-agnostic. We want the best and most appropriate services available for people's needs. No-one knows what the 2010 picture will be, but it's probably going to be a combination of fibre and wireless.

Are we moving away from a debate just about availability towards one that pays more attention to applications?
If BT enables a local exchange, that doesn't just mean that the local campaigns should stop. It gives them more options. Take Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, for example. They couldn't get broadband from BT, so the community banded together to find an alternative solution. BT then ADSL-enabled the local exchange, but instead of disbanding the community group became a reseller of DSL services. They are also using wireless to bring broadband to people who live too far from the exchange to get DSL.

Another important thing will be community-based content, stored on local servers. It's early days, but projects such as the Alston Cybermoor scheme in Cumbria are showing how communities can generate their own broadband services. These things need a lot more bandwidth, and as people get used to more bandwidth they'll create their own compelling services.

So the killer broadband applications of the future won't come from telcos, but will be generated by local communities?
I think the killer application will be realtime video, which people will use for domestic purposes -- to keep in touch with friends in Australia, or to check that elderly parents are OK at home. It'll be these kind of social services that really take off, not people in suits using it at work.

As people get older, they'll use broadband to extend their independence. There's lot of things that can be done with broadband that make a fundamental difference to the way people operate. I'm involved in the ABC because I believe we can achieve fundamental social change through broadband, and that's a massive part of the agenda.

How impressed have you been with the performance of e-commerce minister Stephen Timms?
Timms has done a very good job. He has a good understanding of the potential of the technology.

And politicians in general?
Broadband isn't a partisan issue. At the second ABC conference (in January 2004) we had Stephen Timms, Alun Michael (Minister of State for Rural Affairs) and Michael Fabricant (Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry). Broadband is so important for the future of the economy that there's lots of unity across politics of the need to do something, and I'd like to see all the political parties engaging with the 2010 agenda.

What would you like to see Timms doing in the future?
I've only met him once, and heard him speak maybe six times, but I think he's capable of bigger ideas and I'd like to see him coming forward with them. We need a big idea as we plan towards 2010, and I think Timms has thoughts that could be useful to us. I want to see him pushing that more. He's certainly intellectually able enough to take a leading role. If I could sit across a table with him, I'd tell him that he knows there's lots to do and that we must move on from the government's targets for 2005. The job won't be done when that's achieved.

And that new target could be a one gigabit per second connection for anyone who wants it?
Yes.

Where do you feel broadband providers could do better?
We need more clarity about the applications that are possible with broadband services, rather than just talking about raw speeds. Slower broadband services could be labelled as being 'great for email and high-speed Web, not very good for video', and satellite services tagged as 'not good for games' because of the problem with latency.

What effect do you think the availability of slower services tagged as broadband, such as 150 kilobits per second (Kbps), has been?
They've not been helpful because they've confused people. Broadband penetration still isn't high at the moment, so we all want to drive demand and forcing the price point down is interesting. But if people don't get good service we might be shooting ourselves in the foot.

Is it a problem that all the adverts pitch themselves as 'broadband', whether they're 150Kbps or one megabit per second?
It's difficult if the services are advertised in terms that aren't clear. I'm not sure if marketing people don't understand enough to pitch the products in terms of what they do. Don't think anyone's being deliberately vague -- but there may be a mismatch between the technical people and the marketing teams.

Some of the people selling these slower services, such as Tiscali, are said to be doing very well.
Absolutely. A Tiscali executive told me recently that are absolutely bombarded with interest. It looks like there's a price point where anything called broadband is attractive to users.

But you think there's a real danger that customers may not be impressed with what they get?
The key is whether people can upgrade their services when they want. These lower speed products can be a sensible start for people who just want Web and email. The question is how quickly the provider can react if the user needs more bandwidth.

Do you think that in 2010 a one gigabit per second service should be as affordable as a 512 kilobits per second today?
I don't know what the pricing models will be, and I don't think anyone knows. This is what we need to think about.

There's a lot of excitement about WiMax at the moment. What's your take?
It is very important, because it does offer an opportunity to come up with new network architecture that may work from a cost perspective.

Do you agree with people who are saying that WiMax is the solution to the problem of the digital divide?
I think it could be, but I see WiMax as part of the 2010 solution. If I was planning a UK network based on WiMax I'd be looking at a 2007 launch.

BT is doing a lot better, broadband-wise, than a few years ago. Do you think we'll face new problems when we begin to need much faster broadband speeds?
Ben Verwaayen (BT chief executive) is a very good guy, with a good track record of working in very difficult, competitive environments. When he was appointed there were people in the city asking who he was, but he's achieving real change in the way that BT thinks.

BT is changing, and we're trying to engage in that process. We've criticised them, and we've also complemented them. I think they were surprised when we welcomed their announcement of trigger levels for almost all local exchanges. We'd lobbied for universal trigger levels, as we just wanted to know the situation so we could do the planning.

We'd also like BT to be more open about its 21st Century Network project. We don't know what it is, just what it's called and who is involved with it. They should open up a bit about their strategic thinking, and BT should be able to do that without compromising its commercial work.

But them trying to do it all internally, I don't think it's the right strategy. They need to work more with the people.

So ABC hasn't spoken to them at all about the 21st Century Network project?
No, we've just heard the rumours like everyone else.