The minister for competitiveness, Stephen Timms, has renewed his calls for fibre access to be rolled out across the UK — this time claiming that high-quality videoconferencing makes it necessary.
Speaking at the 2007 Parliament and the Internet Conference in Westminster on Thursday, Timms said a growing demand for flexible working meant that the national telecommunications infrastructure needed an upgrade to fibre.
Although the "backbone" of the nation's infrastructure is already fibre-based, the connections between local exchanges and homes themselves are almost always based on copper, thus restricting access speed. Ofcom, the communications regulator, is currently consulting on how to overcome this bottleneck, with the most significant questions being those of demand and who will pay for the upgrade.
"UK broadband is in a leading position in terms of availability and use — it's already made an important contribution to UK economic success," said Timms on Thursday. "Data traffic has become more intense. We want to support new access to technology, and not encourage the digital divide."
Timms pointed out that high-speed networks would in any case be needed to support the widespread uptake of high-definition TV, but he also singled out the growth in flexible working as a justification. "A growing number of people are working from home who will need high-quality, two-way video conferencing [and advanced audio]," he said. "The quality of graphics applications is pushing up bandwidth needs."
"Effective use of technology enables economic growth," Timms continued. "We have hardly any fibre-to-home connections. As far as I'm aware, we have none. There are 900,000 in the US and eight million in Japan. We're not suffering yet, but communications applications with higher [bandwidth] needs are not far behind. We need timely take-up."
Part of Ofcom's consultation involves looking at alternatives to wired access, but Timms claimed that wireless and satellite-based technology was "not enough to support our future bandwidth". "The infrastructure needs to be able to deliver high-speed broadband to all, based around fibre rather than copper, with the important addition of wireless, satellite and 3G," he said.
Prior to his political career, Timms spent many years working in the IT and communications industry. A former Treasury official, his current responsibility for UK e-commerce and competitiveness came about with his appointment to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in July of this year.