Digital Britain: Broadband in every home by 2012

Lord Carter's Digital Britain interim report confirms plans for universal broadband access, but stays quiet on whether the public sector will help push out next-gen service
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor and  Jo Best, Contributor

The government has revealed plans to create a universal service commitment for broadband that would see every last one of the UK's broadband 'notspots' filled in.

However, it has not yet made a decision about whether it has a role to play in delivering 100 percent coverage of next-generation broadband.

The Digital Britain interim report from minister for communications, technology and broadcasting Lord Carter, published today, calls for every home in the country to be broadband-enabled by 2012.

According to the EU, four percent of homes in rural areas of the UK are not within reach of broadband access.

However, only 56 percent of UK homes had a broadband connection last year, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

Under the plans set out by Lord Carter, all Britons would be guaranteed a connection speed of up to 2Mbps "delivered by a mixture of fixed and mobile, wired and wireless means".

The call for more widespread broadband has already received some industry backing.

Strategy and markets development partner for Ofcom, Peter Phillips, told a conference last week: "It's even more important [than a next-generation rollout] to ensure that all UK residents have access to high-speed broadband."

Chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, Anthony Walker, also believes the question of availability must be dealt with.

"Where possible it is now time to address those 'notspots' in terms of availability and I think that's really on the basis that broadband is increasingly being seen as a basic utility for households, both in terms of the benefits of connectivity and also things like access to services such as BBC iPlayer and others," he told ZDNet UK's sister site, silicon.com, recently.

The report also details the government's intention to tackle 'broadband refuseniks' — those people who can get fat pipe access but for whatever reason choose not to — by encouraging the development of "public service champions of universal take-up".

On the issue of next-generation broadband, however, Lord Carter is far more circumspect, deferring a decision on whether the public sector has a role to play in helping push out next-gen coverage.

"We will establish a government-led strategy group to assess the necessary demandside, supplyside and regulatory measures to underpin existing market-led investment plans, and to remove barriers to the timely rollout, beyond those declared plans, to maximise market-led coverage of next-generation broadband," the report said.

"We will, by the time of the final Digital Britain report, have considered the value-for-money case for whether public incentives have a part to play in enabling further next-generation broadband deployment, beyond current market-led initiatives."

Speaking on Thursday, Lord Carter added there is no doubt the market would be able to fund the lion's share — between 60 and 65 percent — of next-generation deployments…

…in the UK, provided the regulatory conditions are suitable. Hooking up the other 30 to 35 percent, however, could prove more tricky.

"We asked the question as to whether or not the market will take us beyond 60, 65 percent or whether or not it will only get us there if there is a use of public incentives and I don't think we know the answer to that," Carter said.

However, he added: "The case for the value of next-generation networks is probably clearer now than it's ever been."

Commenting on the report, Ian Fogg, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said that while the commitment to deliver universal service for broadband is "a worthy goal", the report is decidedly lacklustre on the issue of next-generation networks. "I don't think this report has enough in it about making sure that in urban areas we have internationally competitive broadband, fibre-powered broadband," he told silicon.com.

"This report talks about access to [up to] 2Mbps... the vast majority of the country has that available — in excess of 99 percent depending on whose figures you use."

Fogg added: "If the focus is too much on making sure that broadband's widely available, we will have less of a digital divide but we will have achieved that by ending up with a lowest common denominator approach… We need to make sure that both those things — deploying high-speed fibre broadband and making broadband available throughout the country — both those things happen without sacrificing a competitive market."

There are now more than 30 separate local or community next-generation broadband rollouts planned in Britain and under the plans set out today, the government will help implement a proposal for an umbrella body to be established in order to ensure these next-generation networks are open and interoperable, as well as providing technical and advisory support.

The report also suggests the government is gearing up to tackle online illegal copying, setting out a commitment to legislate to require ISPs to notify copyright infringers their conduct is illegal.

"We also intend to require ISPs to collect anonymised information on serious repeat infringers (derived from their notification activities) to be made available to rights-holders together with personal details on receipt of a court order," Lord Carter's report states.

The full Digital Britain interim report is available online.

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