Friday, November 20, 2009

NextGen 09 conference report


I attended the NextGen09 conference earlier this week, organised by the Community Broadband Network (CBN). Stephen Timms delivered the keynote.

Nothing new in his speech, unfortunately. However his response to a question from the floor (from Stephen Dodson of DC10plus) was of interest. In recognition of the fact that there is little "new money" (whether public or private) around to support investment in Next Generation Access, Stephen D asked whether the role of large government departments (DWP, DCSF) as potential "big spenders" on NGA was being explored. Stephen T replied that this was something he would be talking to the various Secretaries of State about.

Which is potentially good news for education, on two counts? Programmes like Becta's Home Access initiative and Next Generation Learning campaign demonstrate that access to education services is a key driver for consumer takeup of NGA. Secondly, now is the time to review and refresh schools' broadband services to deliver NGA-equivalent or better services across the country? We need to ensure that schools can keep ahead users' broadband expectations, of both pupils and staff.

Ed Vaizey (Shadow Minister for Culture) spoke the previous day, re-stating Conservative opposition to the 50p landline levy ("an analogue solution to a digital issue"). He went down very well, but it's easy to play to the crowd in this context, as he himself admitted. He also flagged the importance of restructuring the regulatory environment to spur investment, the role of dark fibre provision, sub-loop unbundling and the need to reform business rates on fibre. This echoed a recent speech he made to the International Dark Fibre Convention.

The conference presentations are now available online. These selections are worth a look:

Digital Britain – 5 months on – what does it all mean?
Kip Meek, Chair, Broadband Stakeholder Group

I thought the “unfortunate point in electoral cycle” comment was odd, to start a presentation about broadband opportunities with an excuse. The subsequent comment that the Digital Economy Bill was smaller as a consequence seemed another way of saying “the dog ate my homework” to me. I also disagreed with the comment that “the importance of universality of broadband and its relationship with speed is not understood; take-up a bigger immediate issue”. In our context this relationship is well understood, as schools start to reach the limits of their existing provision. A more general point was made: there are lots of "knowns" about the value of NGA, but current policy isn't bringing them together very well.

Digital Britain - are we on the right track?
Alan Srbljanin, East Midlands Development Agency

Alan's view: no, we are on the slow track, not the right track. A more strategic approach than a "patchwork quilt" is needed. Digital Britain is already here; we need a manifesto, not pilots.

The Technology Strategy Board Digital Testbed Programme
Maurizio Pilu, TSB

"An environment to stimulate new business models" - I did think there was a risk this programme might end up testing proven hypotheses, theorising about already established use cases, applications and business models. However, still very interesting as a potential mechanism to explore schools's use of NGA services, particularly in relation to supporting concurrent usage.

Sub-loop unbundling: opportunites & challenges
Mark Melluish, Rutland Telecom

Very interesting - a local operator providing high speed VDSL services by unbundling the sub-loop between the street cabinet and the customer premise to provide NGA services. More information on their website. Backhaul and excess construction costs (distance dependent) are the two largest cost barriers to overcome. But in a small authority like Rutland I guess core network and backhaul can be procured at realistic costs?

Digital Region
David Holt, CEO Digital Region

The first major, open access regional superfast broadband (based on FTTC) network in the UK - covering Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. But see also G-ti in Gateshead, who also presented. However, these seem to be networks in search of applications - a direct question to Digital Region about which service providers were involved provoked only a "commercial in confidence discussions are continuing" response. Also no indication of if/how schools (for which broadband networks are already in place) will be served by the network.

Just plain bandwidth: complexity may be big, but it's not clever
Andrew Haynes, Level 3

An interesting analysis of the cost complexities facing ISPs and the importance of "running to stand still" to keep pace with consumer demand: "if the problem is cost, complexity isn't likely to be the solution".

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