Ultra-fast broadband is going to be a key technology to drive future growth of the UK economy, the competitiveness minister, Stephen Timms, has said.
Timms was speaking after chairing a broadband summit to discuss the infrastructure needed to support next-generation networks.
Companies including BT, which has invested billions in overhauling its core network to an all-IP network known as "21CN", and Virgin Media, which has announced plans to roll out an up-to-50Mbps broadband service by the end of next year, joined telecoms regulator Ofcom to debate the future of broadband in Britain.
Timms said in a statement: "Ultra-fast broadband is going to be a key future technology that will allow our businesses to innovate, grow and create wealth. In this age of information-sharing and knowledge, communications systems lie at the heart, underpinning everything that we do. If we delay in putting this new network into place, it could be a barrier to the future success of our economy."
Timms added: "We must ensure that our industry stays ahead and is well placed to make the most of the hi-tech, knowledge-based economy."
Participants in the summit agreed on the need for collaboration across industry, government and the public sector to build the necessary infrastructure. This echoes the view of various industry speakers at a recent Westminster eForum conference on the future of broadband, who said public-sector intervention is likely to be needed to ensure all areas of the country gain access to next-generation services — or there is a risk of a new digital divide opening up, based on speed.
ISP trade association ISPA told silicon.com it welcomes the government's efforts to address the issue of next-generation network infrastructure.
A spokesman said broadband speeds are important to the UK as it needs "appropriate infrastructure" to perform on a global stage: "It's a global economy — that's the nature of the internet. [Next-generation network infrastructure is] not just for UK plc, it's also to enable us to work effectively internationally."
There is also evidence that UK consumers are switching on to the issue of sluggish fat pipes. A recent uSwitch report found nearly four million broadband users are unhappy with the speed of their connection. According to uSwitch, the average broadband customer pays £213 per year to receive a speed of 5Mbps but, in reality, receives only 3Mbps.
Following the summit, Timms said a "vision statement" would be drawn up to establish investment and other priorities for UK broadband. The minister said he will also call on experts to advise on sharing learning and best practice from high-speed broadband pilots already underway.
Timms added that the debate had been "a constructive and open discussion which anticipated the demand for reliably faster and more symmetrical broadband".
Discussion is certainly underway on the future of broadband in Britain, said ISPA's spokesman, pointing to the Ofcom consultation on next-generation networks. "We obviously urge our members to get involved with that consultation," he added.
A video of Timms introducing the broadband summit can be found on YouTube.