Broadband has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, but there are still grounds for cautious optimism, says community-broadband expert Malcolm Corbett.
Three big broadband stories attracted headlines earlier this month. First, Britain's poor showing in the broadband league table compiled by Oxford's Said Business School for Cisco. According to the report, the UK languishes 25th out of 66 countries. Not good news for a government obsessed by league tables and certainly not good for the country as a whole.
Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that BT then announced plans to extend optical fibre directly to 2.5 million UK homes, "…bringing speeds of up to 100Mbps by 2012, with possible speeds of 1Gbps".
Well, that's good then. Problem solved? Not in rural areas, says Prince Charles. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said, "Too many rural households are currently unable to access the internet at satisfactory speeds. The handicap this places on those businesses, schools, doctors' surgeries and local authorities, which inhabit so-called broadband deserts, is immense."
Prince Charles is certainly right about the rural problem. Community Broadband Network (CBN) together with broadband information hub Samknows.com produced and analysed data for the Commission for Rural Communities. In the report Mind the Gap, we identified about two million homes and businesses in England that cannot obtain the government's baseline speed of 2Mbps.
As Adrian Wooster, CBN's chief technology officer, said, "Rural areas have been largely ignored by internet operators because there are not enough people to pay for the service". BT argues that its new BET service will help solve the rural broadband problem.
Value for money
Not everyone agrees. We analysed BET. It is a technology that bonds DSL lines together, so requires double the number of copper lines — and perhaps triple — and will still only deliver 2Mbps, half the UK's average speed. It is hard to see how this approach can be value for money.
Perhaps BT's new fibre-to-the-home plans will have an impact. Welcome as this announcement undoubtedly is, the detail shows that it is likely to have marginal impact on poorly served rural areas, or indeed most urban areas. The plan moves beyond BT's original target of laying fibre only to greenfield sites and now includes brownfield areas using existing duct and telegraph poles.
But BT did not announce any new investment. Most of the spend is still going into hybrid fibre-copper fibre-to-the-cabinet services, often in areas where it competes with Virgin Media's own hybrid fibre-coax Docsis 3.0 infrastructure.
So, where does this leave Digital Britain and particularly the 'final third'? At the present pace, we risk languishing way down the international broadband league table for years to come — championship, not premiership.
Yes, BT and Virgin Media will roll out their flavours of fibre to the cabinet, but at best this is a half-way house, likely to increase operational costs, not offering much opportunity for genuine competition, innovation, nor providing any real future-proofing. We need to pick up the pace with full fibre deployment direct to our homes and businesses.
Fortunately there are many creative thinkers working on the problem. On 16 November they will arrive in Leeds for the NextGen 09 Conference. Delegates will share their experiences as they sew together a patchwork of projects planning and deploying fibre. Together they form the new Independent Networks Co-operative Association, speaking with a common voice.
Stephen Timms, minister for Digital Britain, will address the conference, as will Jeremy Hunt, shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport. A wide range of projects will be represented. Daniel Heery from deeply rural Alston Fibremoor will explain how they are laying fibre in exactly the sort of community that Prince Charles is worried about.
At the other end of the scale representatives from South Yorkshire Digital Region, rural North Yorkshire, Birmingham city region, Manchester, and Gateshead will update delegates on their plans.
Next Gen 09 is shaping up to be a can-do event, bringing together all those aiming to lift Digital Britain and give us the sort of infrastructure our grandchildren will be proud of.
Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the Community Broadband Network, a co-operative enterprise set up in 2003 to support community broadband initiatives.