Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Digital Britain update

Speculation on the future of Digital Britain continues. The Guardian reported that Peter Mandelson would meet with mobile industry representatives on 1st September to address the requirements for better mobile broadband set out in the final report. This is seen as crucial to ensuring universal service:
"...getting universal broadband relies upon the five networks reaching a deal over the use of 900MHz wireless spectrum that was granted to the two original networks – Vodafone and O2 – when they started operating in the 1980s. This spectrum is perfect for rural broadband as it allows signals to be carried over long distances. None of the other networks have it. A deal over re-apportioning this slice of the airwaves also needs to be reached before the government can sell off the 800MHz spectrum it will get back when the analogue TV signal is switched off in 2012, which is also perfect for widespread rural mobile coverage. Mandelson's meeting with the chief executives of the five UK networks – O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and 3 – is designed to "bang some heads together", according to an insider. In return the mobile phone companies will have their licences to operate 3G services extended indefinitely – potentially saving them billions of pounds, which their fixed-line rivals argue is money that could be used to pay for next-generation broadband networks."

However, BT's corporate strategy director, Dr Tim Whitley, offers a note of caution on the potential of wireless in an interview with eWeek Europe:
"Although wireless has been suggested as a means to reach communities that cannot get broadband over their phone lines, it may be not be able to deliver the right sort of performance...Wireless might hit a good score in a speedtest, but could be unable to provide continuous service, or enough bandwidth to share amongst a community...Before relying on it, the government will have to decide what kind of services it expects people to be running over their 2Mbps links - and make more detailed specifications of the performance of those lines."
The full interview with Dr Whitley is available here (part 1) and here (part 2). Some interesting insights on ways to improve the reach and performance of current fixed line services:
"BT's OpenReach is working on inline repeaters, to improve broadband signals over long copper wires, and there are variations on the use of fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), normally a technology to deliver "super-fast" broadband to a street. "Not-enough-spots" could be served by a big cabinet to save the expense of a new exchange."For the hardest cases, the really long lines and disparate areas, it will be a matter of getting the maps and duct plans out, to optimise against particular houses," he says. Wireless will have a role, and for the last one percent, "the country will have rely on things like satellites as a catch-all." But those two options technology options are where the government will have to be specific about what sort of 2Mbps service it wants people to have, and for what applications. "The Digital Britain report says there will be a role for wireless, but the degree of that role is critically linked to what the services are," he says. Some technologies might give 2Mbps in a speed test, but not be able to sustain it, or suffer from latency."
And also on how superfast broadband performance will be guaranteed for businesses, with Openreach apparently now ready to offer servcies to downstream providers:
"Superfast broadband will differ from today's broadband in its underlying features, he points out. Most importantly, it will free business broadband from the problem of misleading "headline rates" where speeds are "up to" 10Mbps or whatever. When users get a next-generation 20Mbps or a 40Mbps service, it will be backed by guarantees, says Dr whitley. "If you have a headline rate of 30Mbps downstream, you will have an assured minimum of 15Mbps," he says. "that is a guaranteed minimum, and it is monitored, so it will trigger trouble report to [BT's infrastructure arm] OpenReach if it's not delivered." This is a new model for British broadband, he says, and unusual in the world, as it's being deployed, unbundled, from day one: "OpenReach is deploying a wholesale product, unlike anywhere else on the planet. It's competition-ready." A range of service providers will be able to take and resell generic Ethernet services from OpenReach - and, according to Whitley, they will have a say in which exchanges have super-fast services."
Returning to Digital Britain, the Guardian also reported that the proposed Digital Economy Bill (which will push through legislation to implement the Digital Britain report's recommendations, and intended to be officially unveiled during the Queen's Speech in mid-November) is unlikely to get through parliament before the next general election, expected in June, due to the complexity of the multiple issues involved. This fits with Stephen Timms' previous remarks that suggested the 50p/month landline tax's future is in doubt, though this has been refuted in a post on the official Digital Britain Forum:
"There has been a bit of speculation about whether all this will happen in a general election year, although arguably that could be said about any of the governing party’s intentions for the coming year. The DBR said the fund would be established in 2010 and that remains the plan. The business of government is never quick enough for some, but always too rushed and hasty for others. To get a new fund up and running just takes time and there are various administrative hoops to get through. That is what we are working on now."
There have been some additional recent developments of interest too. Orange's latest Connected Britain report offers an interesting take on the possible consequences of super-fast broadband:
"Universal connectivity is going to transform the population map of the UK according to ’Connected Britain’, a new research report from Orange. The South West of England could see a population increase of more than 150% by 2015 as universal access to reliable and fast internet - as outlined in the Government’s Digital Britain report - allows more people the flexibility to live and work in a place of their choosing. London would retain its place as a top location with a 40% increase predicted, while Scotland could see a population jump of more than 50% as workers head North. Some areas of the country, including the East and West Midlands and parts of the North will become less congested as many workers from those regions opt instead for the coasts or mountains. Major cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester could see as much as an 80% decrease in residents."
The full report is available here. On a related note, GigaOM analyst Katie Fehrenbacher highlights the potential environmental benefits of super-fast broadband on the earth2tech site:
"...the build-out of high-speed ubiquitous broadband networks becomes a means to fight climate change and an issue at the heart of the cleantech industry. Remember Metcalfe’s law, which says that the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of network users? Well, consider that through a green lens: The dematerialization potential of the Internet grows alongside the amount of connections. The network speed itself is also important. Slow connections, which take ages to download digital media, won’t enable users to weave broadband into their daily lives, and won’t deliver the same kind of dematerialization opportunities. And all of this isn’t even delving into the energy-efficiency opportunities that IT networks can offer for the power grid and other systems."
In this context, dematerialization means the Internet’s ability to replace physical goods with virtual ones: "replacing atoms with digital bits, reducing physical goods created, and cutting carbon emissions." Finally, Cisco offer some interesting predictions on future Internet traffic in their Hyperconnectivity and the Approaching Zettabyte Era and Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2008-2013 white papers. Some key points:
"P2P as a percentage of consumer Internet traffic will drop to 20 percent of consumer Internet traffic by 2013, down from 50 percent at the end of 2008. The decline in traffic-share is due primarily to the increasing share of video traffic."
"Internet video is now approximately one-third of all consumer Internet traffic, not including the amount of video exchanged through P2P file sharing. In 2010, Internet video will surpass P2P in volume. This will be the first time since 2000 that any application has displaced P2P as the top traffic driver."
Interesting food for thought, especially in relation to Dr Tim Whitley's comments on broadband performance requirements reported earlier in this post.