For maximum impact, schemes such as Fujitsu's planned multibillion-pound investment in rural fibre need to harness grassroots energy by co-investing with the community and public sector, says Malcolm Corbett.
Fujitsu's announcement of an investment of between £1.5bn and £2bn in next-generation broadband for rural homes took many commentators by surprise. Fujitsu is not well known to the general public, but it is a force in the industry as a supplier of broadband and mobile infrastructure.
The announcement is welcome on several levels. For some months BT has made most of the running in relation to the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) process for channelling government funds through county councils to connect up rural areas. With another large supplier in the frame, BT now has serious competition and local authorities have more choices on the table.
Secondly, Fujitsu brings with it some key companies on the services side — both Virgin Media and TalkTalk. The plan is to create an open-access platform that encourages more service providers into the process.
Thirdly, Fujitsu is talking about genuinely future-proofed solutions — fibre-to-the-home or FTTH — in rural areas. This initiative is particularly welcome since many people have been concerned that rural areas will yet again end up with second best — some uplift in speeds, but variable quality as well as heavily asymmetric services that are the inevitable consequence of consumer services based on copper lines, even where fibre runs to street cabinets.
But there is a sting in the tail. Fujitsu says its investment is contingent on a better deal for access to BT's passive infrastructure of telegraph poles and ducts. Like other network providers, Fujitsu believes that without fair-priced access to this infrastructure the economics of deployment don't stack up — unless of course you are BT.
Can we declare that we are on the way to job done, rural problem solved in next-generation broadband Britain? Up to a point.
Fujitsu was a signatory to the recent letter sent to communications minister Ed Vaizey and BT chief executive Ian Livingston that described BT's reference offer on duct and pole access as "unviable".
So, with some caveats, can we declare that we are on the way to job done, rural problem solved in next-generation broadband Britain? Up to a point. A fully future-proofed fibre network covering 90 percent of us will cost between £15bn and £25bn depending how you work the numbers on costs and community involvement. The more we dig or aggregate, the cheaper it gets for the providers.
Adding together £2.5bn from BT, £1.5bn from Fujitsu and £830m from the government still leaves us a long way short of £15bn, let alone £25bn. Even if we factor in another £830m of match funding that BT says it will commit if it wins the BDUK money and add the same again from other public and European sources, we are still short.
The other way of looking at the challenge is from the bottom up. The figure of £25bn amounts to an average of £1,000 per household. Obviously costs rise greatly the more sparsely populated the area. However, projects such as Alston Cybermoor and NextGenUs show that by engaging the local community, costs can be reduced dramatically.
Cybermoor is also piloting a scheme to test the appetite of the local community to invest in its broadband future. The Independent Networks Co-operative Association, or Inca, working with partners in the Big Society Broadband Project, is working on a project to develop models for community investment that can scale across the country.
Fujitsu and its partners have expressed a strong desire to work with local community broadband initiatives. What we would like to see from Fujitsu — and from BT — is a willingness to co-invest with the community and public sector, thus harnessing grassroots energy in true social-enterprise style. This would be Big Society Broadband moving seriously into action.
Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, which represents organisations building and operating independent next-generation broadband networks in the UK.