Wednesday, June 09, 2010

UK coalition government's broadband ambitions - best in Europe by 2015

In a speech yesterday, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt set out the new government's intentions for broadband. Unsurprisingly, no new funding accompanied his announcements, but the speech was encouraging nevertheless, demonstrating both a refreshing recognition of broadband's importance and a clear intent to improve the UK's broadband infrastructure:
“It is a scandal that nearly 3 million households in this country still cannot access 2 Mbps broadband speeds, and less than 1% of the country is able to access the internet using modern fibre optic technology – compared to an OECD average of around 10%. Some people ask why we need these speeds when the iPlayer can manage on less than one Mpbs. They are missing the point. Superfast broadband is not simply about doing the same things faster. It’s about doing totally new things – creating a platform on which a whole generation of new businesses can thrive. The Federation of Small Businesses has estimated that a superfast network could add £18 billion to GDP and create 60,000 jobs. NESTA thinks it could be ten times that – 600,000 new jobs. We may not know the precise number but no one is any doubt about the economic impact...But it isn’t only about business. Next generation broadband will open up new opportunities to improve public services such as education and healthcare. The biggest driver of high speed broadband in Korea, where I was in January, is children getting help with their homework. Telemedicine is next – and already patients undergo heart surgery on the remote island of Guam supervised remotely by surgeons in Hawaii.”
Also recognition that, while the market should drive development, government must play its part too:
“...wherever possible the market should lead the way...But I have always recognised that there has to be a role for government as well as the market. Both in driving up demand for broadband by putting as many services as possible online. And also...government must ensure we do not open up a new digital divide between the urban areas most attractive to infrastructure providers and rural communities where superfast broadband may never be viable.”
There is a clear fit here with the opportunities to consolidate and extend existing education broadband infrastructure, discussed in this previous post, which offers the potential to deliver both universal service and (depending on the technologies employed) next generation access objectives as well. The universal service commitment will be funded by "a proportion of the underspend on digital switchover", while next generation access options will be explored by "three market testing projects that will bring superfast broadband to rural and hard-to-reach areas" - no word on how these will be funded or where they are though.

Broadband Delivery UK (about whom more here, scroll down to final bullet point) will continue to provide leadership in this area:
"Broadband Delivery UK – the organisation which will be the delivery vehicle for these policies and accountable to me – will hold an industry event on 15th July to provide further details, and to describe how the procurement of these testing projects will be achieved."
Opening up infrastructure is the key, apparently, again offering synergies with the potential of utilising existing education broadband infrastructure:
“...I also want to address the biggest cost involved in rolling out new fibre optic networks: digging up the roads. Cut these costs and, straight away, investing in superfast broadband becomes a substantially more attractive proposition. That’s why I want companies to be able to take advantage of the infrastructure that already exists – the ducts and poles of telecoms companies, the sewers and other utility networks. We said in our Coalition Agreement that we will require BT and other infrastructure providers to allow the use of their assets to deliver superfast broadband. So I wholeheartedly welcome Ofcom’s proposals to open up access to BT’s ducts and telegraph poles to promote further investment – and the positive and constructive attitude BT has shown to this development. But I would like to go further. If legislation is necessary to require other infrastructure providers to open up their assets as well, then – as announced in the Queen’s speech – I am ready to bring it to the House as soon as parliamentary time can be found."
"Take advantage of the infrastructure that already exists" - spot on. Education broadband providers (regional broadband consortia, local authorities) are likely to be more than happy to "open up their assets" if additional funding can be secured to consolidate and improve their networks as a result? Using public money to reinforce an existing public asset (schools' broadband infrastructure) kills two (or possibly three) birds with one stone and offers a number of unique advantages:
  • helps to deliver both USC and potentially NGA objectives too;
  • provides a performance uplift for schools' broadband (for example, to fund the long-lining of fibre to remote schools that would otherwise be too expensive to connect);
  • offers a more cost effective option than new build, reducing duplication and providing better return on an existing investment, a significant consideration in the current economic climate.
Returning to the speech, a paper setting out the government's latest thinking will be published at the BDUK industry event on 15th July. Finally, the speech sets out a lofty ambition for next generation access:
"Our goal is simple: within this parliament we want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe."
Further coverage on BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones' blog and also on BBC news. Rory offers a football metaphor (there is clearly no escaping football at the moment!) in relation to the government's ambition to be the best in Europe:
“That means by 2015, with the spending of a maximum of £300m of public money, the UK will have soared to the top of the European broadband league. I had a look at a recent study of global broadband performance by Cisco and Oxford's Said Business School to see how far we need to go to achieve this goal. It puts the UK in 17th place in Europe, far behind the likes of Sweden and Switzerland, with even Slovenia and Latvia ahead in the table. So to use a football metaphor, Mr Hunt is in the position of the manager of West Ham, promising to win the Premier League within five years, without a big budget for new players. Even Hammers fans may see that as a little optimistic.”
It's a funny old game, this broadband policy lark. More of the same available here.

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