Sense and connectivity

The Caio Review sets out a logical, far-sighted plan for the future of British broadband, with no room for excuses

Reports commissioned by governments rarely surpass expectations, let alone turn them around, but that's what happened on Friday with the publication of the Caio Review.

Asked by the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) to tell it about next-generation broadband access, ex-Cable & Wireless chief Francesco Caio served up a pragmatic and visionary list of recommendations. His review should set off a complex yet workable chain reaction.

The best thing about the report is that it should, in theory, please everyone — essential in a situation where co-operation is of paramount importance. Our cash-strapped government is absolved of any responsibility to subsidise the deployment; Ofcom need not completely re-orchestrate the regulation of our nation's broadband services; and the broadband industry will be pleased, as always, to be left, more or less, to its own devices — for now.

This is not to say that Caio's recommendations support the status quo. His review is a cohesive package of clever ideas that only work through full and frank consultation with all involved: "Why do we have rules saying fibres have to be buried? Let's relax those. Talk to the construction industry and make sure all new builds are fibre-ready. Let's co-ordinate streetworks so providers can realistically lay new lines. Let's set a switchover date from the old infrastructure to the new."

In a debate that has, of late, been hindered by prevarication, this is ground-breaking stuff. And no-one is excused: Caio wants to force the market into action. The cleverest recommendation is that ISPs should have to tell their customers in clear, accurate detail about their traffic-management policies. When you're forced to be explicit about the limits of your network, the choice is simple: upgrade or lose your customers. That this will please customers too is an elegant and much-needed bonus.

Caio warned the government not to regulate universal access too soon: technology is developing all the time, and there are many new business models that could prove useful in delivering next-generation broadband to rural areas. Local authorities in such regions should take this opportunity to maintain their own competitiveness. As Caio pointed out, wireless could also work here, if Ofcom and the operators can co-operate just long enough to get new technologies like LTE (the long-term evolution of 3G) and WiMax up and running. It may not break the market dominance currently enjoyed by BT, but it's a start.

Over to the government and Ofcom. Both have much to like in the Caio Review; both have a lot of work to do. The next step will be that of offering regulatory clarity to BT and its rivals — a process that will, as Caio noted, probably involve "a lot of screaming".

We now have a better idea of what lies on the other side of that particular ruckus. That screaming will be music to our ears, and the prelude to a much faster second movement in the British broadband symphony.


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