Thursday, July 29, 2010

New research from Ofcom on UK broadband speeds

Ofcom earlier this week published new research into broadband speeds in the UK. From their press release:
"The UK’s most comprehensive broadband speeds research reveals that the UK’s average actual fixed-line residential broadband speed has increased by over 25 per cent over the past year from 4.1Mbit/s to 5.2Mbit/s as internet service providers (“ISPs”) increasingly move to offer higher speed broadband packages."
The increase is encouraging, but I do wonder if average speeds are still a relevant index of provision, given the increasing gap between the highest and lowest speeds. And issues over the gap between advertised and actual speeds remain:
"In April 2009, average actual (or download) speeds were 4.1Mbit/s, 58 per cent of average advertised ‘up to’ speeds (7.1Mbit/s). In May 2010, average download speeds were 5.2Mbit/s, 45 per cent of average advertised ‘up to’ speeds (11.5Mbit/s)."
The full research is available here, with coverage from the BBC here and Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones' thoughts are here. Rory makes a good point:
"Broadband in Britain is getting faster, slowly. But consumers may feel that the gap between the industry's promises and what it actually delivers is getting wider."
Something for BDUK to bear in mind when assessing industry's proposals to deliver universal service perhaps? Such an approach from industry is hardly in keeping with ensuring Britain has the best superfast broadband in Europe within the lifetime of this parliament, is it?

INCA on Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) industry day

The Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) have published a useful report of BDUK's industry day on 15th July. The report echoes my views on the day, especially the way it was mis-represented by the media. A case of great minds thinking alike, clearly:
"Much media coverage of the event focused on the announcement that fulfilling the Universal Service Commitment will be pushed back from 2012 to 2015. But this would be to understate the messages in the Ministers speeches, messages that were amplified during the course of the day which described a very much more interesting and positive story. Rather than prescribing a centralised, top-down approach, the three ministers explained their vision of super-fast broadband by 2015. They admitted that they didn't have all the answers today, instead they laid out what they see as the Government’s role – to remove barriers, get Government departments working together and smarter, and create an environment which fully supports investment. They then described a partnership approach, laying out what help they needed from industry, local Government and community."
My thoughts on the day are set out in this previous post. There is a close fit between INCA's view and the government's proposals:
"The £200m previously pledged is essentially a “stake in the ground”; as progress is made the Government are prepared to increase funding as necessary, with a likely cap of £150m per year coming from the BBC licence fee. In addition, they will be seeking other sources of finance, from the EU for example, and are in talks with the European Commission to obtain a UK-wide State Aid approval to provide clarity on the ways public network infrastructure can be used. However, Jeremy Hunt emphasised the fact that the South Korean broadband programme was Government led but 95% privately funded, and that this is the model he expects to follow. The Government are proposing a national policy with a local approach. They hope that investment will be led from sub-regional level (possibly local authority or lower) with BDUK acting as central bankers and advisers to these local programmes. Around the local programmes they want to see “mid-level aggregation”. This is indeed the very approach that INCA has been advocating and INCA is looking forward to helping our members turn this vision into reality. There will need to be a structure which links BDUK with the local delivery groups, and there will need to be a function which enables the mid-level aggregation work for the existing industry. Both of these are current work programmes INCA is assisting in."
All good news, particularly in relation to a centralised approach to addressing State Aid approval for the re-use of existing public infrastructure. My thoughts on the opportunities such re-use presents are described here and also here.

European Commission launches net neutrality consultation

I'm reporting this rather late, as the EC made their announcement on 30th June, but better late than never, as the saying goes.

The EC have launched a consultation on net neutrality, following on from a speech earlier in the year by Neelie Kroes, about which more in this previous post. The consultation (which runs until 30th September) will feed into a Commission report on net neutrality, which should be presented by the end of this year. This time frame is similar to Ofcom's current consultation on the same subject (details here) which closes on 9th September.

It looks like the objectivity and balance of Kroes' speech has been sustained into the consultation, given what she's quoted as saying in the accompanying press release:
"I am committed to keeping the internet open and neutral. Consumers should be able to access the content they want. Content providers and operators should have the right incentives to keep innovating. But traffic management and net neutrality are highly complex issues. I do not assume that one approach or another should prevail. We need input from all sides so we can examine all the issues carefully, in a very objective way, strike the right balance between all the interests involved and work out what new measures, if any, may be needed."
Similar intentions are set out on her blog. A first read of the consultation document suggests the Commission is asking the right questions, it will be interesting to see how industry and others respond.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Computers at home provide "little or no educational benefit" - on their own that is

An interesting piece in the New York Times, describing a number of research projects measuring the educational impact of technology on schoolchildren from low-income households who receive financial support to purchase a computer and broadband connectivity. The article starts on a positive note:
"Middle school students are champion time-wasters. And the personal computer may be the ultimate time-wasting appliance. Put the two together at home, without hovering supervision, and logic suggests that you won’t witness a miraculous educational transformation."
"Hovering supervision" is an interesting choice of words. It's foolish to imagine that technology can deliver benefits of itself. Parachuting computers and connectivity into any household, whether low-income or not, is very unlikely to have a positive impact without the right set of support for parents and children. But it's the implementation that's at fault in such instances, not the principle. "Hovering supervision" seems a very unfair choice of words to me, given the huge empowering impact technology in the home can have in the right context, not just in relation to education but in many other areas as well. Just because you need to do more that simply provide computers and connectivity to achieve these benefits doesn't mean you shouldn't consider ways to provide them to those that couldn't otherwise afford them, surely?

The article continues:
"...little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts."
Three studies are referenced: a paper from the University of Chicago and Columbia University investigating a project in Romania (which found “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher received significantly lower school grades in math, English and Romanian”, but also that "there is also evidence that winning a voucher increased cognitive ability" and that "parental monitoring and supervision may be important mediating factors", neither of which aspects were mentioned in the New York Times article), a National Bureau of Economic Research report, Scaling the Digital Divide, which looked at the arrival of broadband service in North Carolina between 2000 and 2005 and its effect on middle school test scores during that period:
"...the introduction of home computer technology is associated with modest but statistically significant and persistent negative impacts on student math and reading test scores. Further evidence suggests that providing universal access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps."
...and finally a report prepared by the Texas Center for Educational Research following a four-year experiment in "technology immersion", which "tried to make the case that test scores in some academic subjects improved slightly at participating schools over those of the control schools. But the differences were mixed and included lower scores for writing among the students at schools “immersed” in technology." But the executive summary of this last report lists many positive benefits of the technology beyond its impact (or not) on academic achievement, which the author of the New York Times article also neglected to mention.

Thankfully, the FCC have some much more considered commentary on their National Broadband Plan blog:
“...connectivity and hardware matter, but computers and broadband access cannot replace parents, teachers and broader social support as critical inputs into student achievement. Laptops in the home are not a silver bullet – digital literacy training for parents and teachers, appropriate content for online learning systems, and broader community digital literacy efforts are necessary to ensure children benefit from technology...The National Broadband Plan recognizes that computers and high-speed connectivity can play an important role in improving outcomes in the classroom – along with the expertise of the educational community, engagement by the technology sector, and involvement of family.”
Absolutely. Interestingly, digital literacy training for parents and teachers, appropriate content for online learning systems, broader community digital literacy efforts, engagement by the technology sector, and involvement of family are/were all strands at the heart of Becta's activities in the UK. What a shame.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) Industry Day - media misses the point

I was lucky enough to attend Broadband Delivery UK's Industry Day yesterday. You've probably seen the headlines reporting the event: "Broadband target put back to 2015" (Guardian), "Universal 2Mbps broadband delayed until 2015" (Telegraph) and " abandons 2012 rural broadband pledge" (The Register) to name but three.

It is true that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt in his speech opening the event said that the intention is now to achieve "universal 2 Mbps access within the lifetime of this Parliament". This represents a change to the intentions set out in his previous speech on 8 June 2010, where he said "the government supports the commitment to ensure a universal service level of 2Mbps" by 2012, which he earlier described as "a paltry 2 Mbps universal connection" when compared the ambitions of other countries over the same period. The change is a result of "sufficient funding" not being place. So the target now parallels the other objective set out on 8 June: for the UK to have the best superfast broadband in Europe also within the lifetime of this Parliament.

Granted this is a significant development; moving a key target for broadband delivery back by three years will be a bitter blow for many. But focusing on this to the exclusion of all else from yesterday misses two very important points. Firstly, to me at least, the day as a whole and the proposed universal service commitment theoretical exercise in particular represent the start of a strategic dialogue with industry on broadband options and approaches, the likes of which I've not seen before in this country. I hope others would agree that this is an opportunity too good not to engage with BDUK as fully as possible in exploring.

Secondly, and perhaps most significantly for the context of this blog, the intention to investigate the re-use of existing infrastructure to reduce broadband investment costs was stated and re-stated throughout the day, beginning with Jeremy Hunt ("How best can we leverage the investment already made in public sector networks to bring down the cost to business?") and Ed Vaizey in the morning and continuing through BDUK's presentations into the afternoon, with the UK's National Education Network being named specifically at one point. Slides from the day are available here (see slide 24 for the aforementioned, er, mention) and my notes are here, I've highlighted what I think were the key messages from the day in terms of exploring re-use of public sector infrastructure. To be fair to The Register, they didn't miss this point - see this article.

Also announced yesterday was the intention to run three superfast broadband trials. The locations for these are still under consideration and will be announced in September 2010, to be operational by autumn 2011. Location selection criteria will prioritise areas that provide an opportunity to reuse existing infrastructure, including public sector networks.

This is all great news. Lots to do, and re-use of education broadband infrastructure won't be possible or appropriate in every instance, but there will be plenty where it will. One of the three areas chosen for the USC theoretical exercise are the Quernmore and Over Wyresdale Parishes near Lancaster - which include two primary schools, one connected via fibre and one via wireless if I recall correctly. See slides 39-57 for details of the USC exercise and the three locations chosen (the other two are in South Wales and North Scotland), and slides 62-70 for details of the proposed superfast broadband trials.

The way I see it, this is the best chance we've had yet to consolidate and extend an existing public asset in a way that benefits everyone. See this previous post for why this is so important.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Openreach: NGA for UK will cost £2bn - a challenge to Jeremy Hunt?

The BBC reported earlier this evening that "Steve Robertson, chief executive of BT Openreach, told BBC Radio 5 Live that the goal (of rolling out next generation access for the UK) cannot be achieved without public funds of around £2bn."

The timing is interesting - the evening before Broadband Delivery UK's eagerly awaited industry day, at which Jeremy Hunt will challenge industry to address both universal service and next generation access for the UK. In Robertson's view, the money could come from local authorities, central government or the European Union. Openreach is spending £2.5bn installing fast broadband services to around two-thirds of UK homes - more information about their intentions here.

To date the coalition government's plans have include much more modest funding in support of broadband; this is from the coalition agreement published on 20 May 2010:
"We will introduce measures to ensure the rapid roll-out of superfast broadband across the country. We will ensure that BT and other infrastructure providers allow the use of their assets to deliver such broadband, and we will seek to introduce superfast broadband in remote areas at the same time as in more populated areas. If necessary, we will consider using the part of the TV licence fee that is supporting the digital switchover to fund broadband in areas that the market alone will not reach."
More in this previous post. The governments of other countries are putting much more public money into broadband provision - Australia and the USA are just two examples. Whilst I'm sure Robertson's remarks are based in part on self-interest, as Openreach clearly are a (the?) major player in delivering NGA across the UK, I think they're also a simple acknowledgement that building out a new infrastructure is expensive and complex.

Is the coalition government simply being naive in thinking we can get to where we need to be without public investment of the scale Robertson describes? My own view is that existing public sector broadband infrastructure has a big part to play in facilitating the roll out of NGA across the country, as I've discussed previously here, but even this won't come cheap. Significant additional investment will be required to consolidate and extend the networks currently serving schools, libraries and other public sector institutions to support homes and businesses not currently provided for by the marketplace.

This provides an ideal vehicle for public monies, as they would be used to support an existing public asset. The private sector would clearly get much of any committed funds (it would be similarly naive to imagine otherwise), but via an informed, hands-on commissioning approach through which I believe everyone wins:
  • individuals and businesses currently lacking service gain access to broadband;
  • schools, libraries and other public sector bodies benefit from an improved broadband infrastructure, providing them with better service and a broader range of functionality;
  • government demonstrates prudence and insight in delivering its policy objectives for broadband in a way that exploits local knowledge and opportunities while clearly demonstrating value for money;
  • the private sector receives the funding to support investment in NGA services it's long been clamouring for.
What, as they say, is not to like in such an approach? Tomorrow looks set to be a very interesting day; let's hope it's for the right reasons.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Google's fibre plans: website launched, time to speculate on UK implications?

Google have announced the launch of a new site, Google Fibre for Communities, on the official Google Blog, following its February 2010 request for information (RFI) to help identify interested communities. See this previous post for more on the RFI process, this one for details of the strong response Google received and this one for some thoughts on Google's open access intentions.

Google intends to name its target community or communities by the end of 2010. It's set up the site to "thank you for your enthusiasm, to share our experiences as we move forward with our project, and to provide additional resources for anyone interested in ultra high-speed Internet access." Two immediate actions that the site recommends interested parties take are "to send letters of support to Congress for pending federal legislation requiring installation of conduit in federally-funded transportation projects" and to encourage a similar approach at a local level, " to make conduit installation an integral part of their own road construction/repair process".

All of which reminds me of this previous post, speculating on links between the Conservative Party and Google in the run up to the UK General Election on 6 May 2010. This extract from a PC Pro report in particular:
"Parliamentary sources have told PC Pro that the Tories' plans were based on foreign investment in the UK broadband network. Google is one of the few companies with the necessary capital and motivation to invest in British broadband. Google latest financial results reveal that 12% of the company's revenue comes from the UK...The Conservatives and Google already have close links. Last year, Tory leader David Cameron appointed Google CEO Eric Schmidt to a committee of "top talent" that would help lead Britain out of recession."
Broadband Delivery UK's much-anticipated industry event is being held in London tomorrow; could an announcement be in the offing perhaps? Personally I doubt it, as any such speculation in this regard is probably just that, but interesting and very entertaining nevertheless. The list of attendees doesn't include Google...but maybe the list of speakers is a separate list? We'll have to wait and see.

Broadband Commission for Digital Development

In May of this year, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) announced the establishment of a new body - the Broadband Commission for Digital Development - which "will define strategies for accelerating broadband rollout worldwide and examine applications that could see broadband networks improve the delivery of a huge range of social services, from healthcare to education, environmental management, safety and much more."

"Governments now need to view broadband networks as basic national infrastructure", according to the press release, and "governments and regulatory agencies should be strongly fostering broadband development". The commission will analyse "the challenges and opportunities in deploying broadband in nations at all stages of economic development" - so clearly not an initiative solely focusing on developing nations. The launch of the Commission builds on previous ITU initiatives like Build on Broadband and the Connect a School, Connect a Community programme discussed in this previous post.

The Commission met for the first time on 11 July 2010 in Geneva, to define "a vision for accelerating the deployment of broadband networks worldwide, with the aim of improving the delivery of services across a huge range of social and business sectors, and accelerating progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)". From the ITU press release:
"(The Commission) will deliver its outcomes to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 19 September 2010 at an official side event of the UN MDG Summit in New York, which starts on September 20. These outcomes will be presented in the form of two reports, the first of which will reflect expert input from the Commissioners, and the second of which will comprise in-depth analysis of the challenges and opportunities in deploying broadband across a range of different types of economies. The first report will also include a series of top-level recommendations designed to serve as a global blueprint for rapid broadband development worldwide, while the second report will take into account local needs, financing constraints and technical hurdles, and make practical proposals on possible routes towards deployment of ubiquitous high-speed networks at affordable prices in every country worldwide."
It occurs to me that many developing nations have an opportunity to leapfrog more developed nations in relation to broadband development, by deploying next generation infrastructure from the outset? I await the Commission's two reports with interest.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Olympics 2012 - wouldn't broadband investment provide a longer legacy?

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's most recent blog post raises some interesting question marks over the government's priorities  in advance of the much-anticipated industry event being held by Broadband Delivery UK later this week.

The post reports on a meeting between Jeremy Hunt and film-makers Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry, who are responsible for the ceremonies that will accompany the 2012 Olympics, the opening ceremony in particular:
"They are still in the very early stages, but I was encouraged by what I heard: Danny talked about a ceremony which was both spectacular and "with a heart." Both were acutely aware of the challenge of presenting Britain's remarkable history, its vibrant cultural present and its future in a way that manages to make us proud without being in any way jingoistic. In other words tapping into that sense of understated British pride which we all intuitively understand but find it hard to put our fingers on. Seb Coe and Paul Deighton, Chairman and Chief Executive of the London Organising Committee, were also there. They are right to have chosen film makers for this epic challenge - it will need someone with an eye for what will look good on TV screens across the world. Stephen and Danny are the best we have and so if anyone can pull this off they can."
Something created by film-makers that looks "good on TV screens across the world" is unlikely to be a low-budget affair. I would imagine that the cost of the opening ceremony alone will be significant. The costs of staging the games have been widely reported; this from a House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report on the budget for the games, published in March 2008:
"After London was awarded the Games, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Olympic Delivery Authority reviewed the cost estimates and in March 2007 announced a budget of £9.325 billion."
And from the official London 2012 site:
“The London 2012 project is delivered by two key organisations - one private, one public. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) is the private sector company responsible for staging and hosting the 2012 Games. It has a £2bn budget, with almost all of it to be raised from the private sector...The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) is the public sector body responsible for the delivery of the new venues and infrastructure required for the London 2012 Games. The ODA budget is drawn entirely from the public sector. The ODA is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Greater London Authority, the London Development Agency and the Olympic Lottery Distributor...£2.2bn of National Lottery funds are helping to create the facilities to host the Games, providing a long lasting legacy for the people of east London and the wider UK.”
Recent coverage has focused on the amount that the Olympics budget will be reduced as part of the current programme of cuts; this from the BBC on 24 May 2010:
"The government has announced that £27m is to be cut from the 2012 London Olympic budget. The decision is part of the £6.2bn of savings in public spending announced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition on Monday."
Which, as a proportion of overall expenditure, amounts to a cut of just under 0.3% if my maths is right. What's interesting about all of this is that the overall budget of £9.325 billion is significantly more than the Broadband Stakeholder Group's September 2008 lower estimate of the costs of deploying next generation access:
"...national deployment of fibre to the cabinet (the cheapest technology option) would cost £5.1bn – this is three or four times more than the telecoms sector spent deploying today’s broadband services. Taking fibre to every UK home (using point to point fibre – the most expensive technology option) would cost as much as £28.8 bn."
I wonder what the legacy of the Olympics will be, in comparison with the impact we know rolling out next generation access would have on the economy and society as a whole? Returning, to Jeremy Hunt's blog, my guess is that the cost of the opening ceremony alone will eclipse whatever funds he announces in support of NGA on Thursday. 

There are a couple of postscripts to this, as it's only fair to acknowledge that the bid for the Olympics was made in much more affluent times. And I'm sure the successful bid was followed by a range of contractual commitments which would be difficult to change. But shouldn't the sea-change in financial circumstances since nevertheless necessitate a re-think and re-prioritisation? Broadband investment is a much higher priority in every other country's recovery plan it seems. It's also interesting that "£2.2bn of National Lottery funds are helping to create the facilities to host the Games". This for an infrastructure project intended to provide "a long lasting legacy for the people of east London and the wider UK".

I would argue that the legacy of broadband investment would be more powerful still, so why aren't National Lottery funds being considered as part of the potential funding mix for NGA and universal broadband service? If the Olympics is an infrastructure project, then as sure as eggs is eggs broadband development is too. I know there are barriers to use of lottery funds in such a way, but surely this is something that should be considered - if it can be done to support the Olympics...?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Australia: NBN developments, first customer connected

Computerworld Australia recently reported that the National Broadband Network (NBN) has had its first user connected through Internode:
"IT technician, Robert Pettman, from Midway Point – one of the first three NBN trial sites in Tasmania - had his fibre modem connected as of approximately 5pm on Thursday, after applying for the plan at the beginning of June. Speaking to Computerworld Australia, Pettman described his new plan - the NBNP1-Mid-60 - which runs at 50 megabits per second (Mbps), as ‘awesome’ and very speedy in comparison to his previous 1.5Mbps Internode ADSL1 plan."
Computerworld Australia have also published an interesting series of articles entitled NBN 101, examining the arguments around the initiative, one of which flagged an institution I hadn't come across before - the University of Melbourne's Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, "a cross-disciplinary research institute dedicated to products, services, and innovations that maximize the benefit of new broadband technologies to Australian society." Research projects focus on education and learning, health and wellbeing, network deployment and economics, service and business transformation and social infrastructure and communities.

Returning to the NBN, the Sydney Morning Herald also report on the NBN beginning to come to fruition, focusing on developments in Tasmania - "not the sort of place you would expect a revolution to start", apparently:
"In many ways, connecting the three Tasmanian towns - with 4000 premises and a combined population of 9000 - will be the easy part. The state government and local councils have been co-operative and there is excitement about being first. Much more challenging will be connecting 11 million homes and businesses nationally. About 20,000 workers will be needed as construction peaks, 250,000 kilometres of cable will be installed, and up to 4000 new premises will be passed each day."
Also of note are comments from Ovum's Nathan Burley, who expects that competitors offering services over the NBN will seek to differentiate, rather than focus solely on speed, "a trend already seen in Foxtel's bundling with Telstra broadband and iiNet's deal with Fetch TV." Interesting in relation to my comments on the JON Exchange project in this previous post.

Race Online 2012 - time for a new approach?

Published today, UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox's Manifesto for a Networked Nation sets out a bold ambition:
"By the end of this Parliament, everyone of working age should be online and no one should retire without web skills."
The headline is that there are 10 million adults in the UK who have never used the Internet. Coverage from the BBC here and a piece by Martha Lane Fox in the Guardian here. The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones raises the question of cost in his blog - who's going to pay for this to happen:
"It's clear that Martha Lane Fox is hoping that much of the work can be done by the private and voluntary sectors. She's asking firms to come up with packages that would enable people to get online for an upfront fee of around £50, and says people should be able to get "easy and affordable" access to the internet, in the same they get access to water, electricity or gas. There are also, she believes, plenty of things the government can do to encourage wider take-up of the internet which don't involve spending money. Controversially, some of them may involve making some services available exclusively online, giving people no alternative but to use the internet. But it's hard to see how the pledge of universal web access for the UK workforce - which may well be backed by the prime minister later today - can be fulfilled without some government money. The trouble is, one of the key areas for spreading the message, the education system, is facing severe cuts in its capital spending."
The degree to which cost is a barrier to going online is an interesting question: according to the manifesto, only "14% of people think that the internet access is too expensive for them". But, at the same time, over 50% of households with children cite cost as a barrier. So cost is clearly an issue for certain groups. However the manifesto states that "lack of motivation, access and skills are the key reasons why people don’t get online". There is also an underlying reliance within the manifesto on the market to deliver, with suitable encouragement, what's required...sounds depressingly familiar?

In the light of this we need to consider what constitutes going online much more broadly if we're to realise the many important benefits out in the manifesto. We also need to think very carefully about the other groups and agencies that can help with this agenda. In some instances I believe there is little to be gained by trying to convince an individual directly, but much that can be achieved by other agencies working in partnership on their behalf.

The population of the UK is ageing. From the Office for National Statistics:
"Over the last 25 years the percentage of the population aged 65 and over increased from 15 per cent in 1984 to 16 per cent in 2009, an increase of 1.7 million people. Over the same period, the percentage of the population aged under 16 decreased from 21 per cent to 19 per cent. This trend is projected to continue. By 2034, 23 per cent of the population is projected to be aged 65 and over compared to 18 per cent aged under 16."
This is particularly interesting in the context of today's manifesto:
"The fastest population increase has been in the number of those aged 85 and over, the “oldest old”. In 1984, there were around 660,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over. Since then the numbers have more than doubled reaching 1.4 million in 2009. By 2034 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to be 2.5 times larger than in 2009, reaching 3.5 million and accounting for 5 per cent of the total population."
If ten million adults aren't online, my guess from the figures above is that a significant number of these will be from the "oldest old" group described above? Now while there is nothing precluding members of this group getting online via traditional means, as I'm sure many already have, but, without wishing to be unkind or unfair, I'm sure there are many who are reluctant or unable to do so, for a variety of reasons. Asking an elderly individual to engage with the complexities of not only going online but also learning to use a computer is not a small ask.

Which leads me back to thinking about what going online means, and the role of other agencies. One of the most important areas of benefit for an ageing population is improving access to healthcare. Online delivery offers the potential to make it both much easier for individuals to access services and also supports much more efficient and effective delivery - a win-win situation. One piece of technology that everyone regardless of age is comfortable and familiar with is the television. You can see where I'm going with this now: it seems to me there is a role for, for example, Primary Care Trusts to work in partnership with broadband providers to deliver healthcare services via TVs equipped with set-top boxes over a suitable infrastructure. It makes much more sense to simply provision groups that need such access with an appropriate access mechanism, regardless of whether a commercial alternative is available to them or not, rather than relying on a campaign championing the importance of broadband and going online to get the numbers up.

Such a set-up would most likely require an FTTC or ideally FTTH solution, to support the rich interactions that healthcare services require. It could easily support a range of additional services as well, all within a much easier to use and familiar medium than a computer equipped with broadband access. Which brings me back to Rory Cellan-Jones' point about who pays: bringing together existing funding streams from across different public services, all of which are increasingly reliant upon broadband, seems the most sensible approach to me, to deliver a range of services to those that stand to gain the most across an open-access infrastructure.

I don't think that "inspiring people and nudging them towards trying the internet for the first time" is the right approach for every context. We need to be more proactive than this if we're going to realise all that broadband has to offer. Ironically, the manifesto includes a quote from Mark Walker, regional ICT champion, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, which sums up this issue perfectly:
"In Brighton, Hove & Portslade, we have 1,400 community voluntary organisations for 250,000 people: 400 are networked through the local forum, but that leaves 1,000 charities you wouldn’t know where to find them. There’s more voluntary organisations that talk to funders than talk to each other - to make a change in how these organisations think about technology talking to funders is key."
While there is much to praise in today's manifesto, there are some very important strategic opportunities missing too, in terms of engagement with the wider public sector and industry, which is a shame.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Recent developments catch-up: further investment in US, Wales...

Some bullet points to quickly catch up with recent interesting announcements and articles as the week comes to a close:
  • Nearly $795m in grants and loans for broadband deployment projects across the USA was announced last week - more details from Computerworld here and the White House here. These grants include the $62.5m UCAN grant discussed in this previous post.
  • The BBC report that rural broadband notspots are to get £2m support in the form of grants of up to £1,000 to individuals living in affected areas. A BlogSDN article reports that "Telecomms Facilities has made one (potentially sacrilegious) suggestion that church spires could be used as mounts for high strength wireless internet transmitters, this would potentially increase the range of internet access to more rural and out of the way areas of Wales". The suggestion has been welcomed both by the Church and broadband campaigners.
  • The World Bank have offered further evidence to show a connection between broadband and growth in GDP, according to the European Broadband Portal: "The World Bank has found that in low- and middle-income countries every 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration accelerates economic growth by 1.38 percentage points—more than in high-income countries and more than for other telecommunications services." Full report available here.
  • Techradar have an interesting article on how to start your own ISP, focusing on Rutland Telecom and offering a six step guide to DIY broadband provision.
  • Total Telecom report that the New Zealand government plans to make recommendations on investment partners for a NZ$3 billion ultra-fast broadband (UFB) initiative by October 2010. The initiative is underpinned by open access principles.
  • The Rural Services Network report the launch of a project to speed up rural broadband connections in the West Midlands: "If successful, the initiative will benefit 40,000 rural residents and more than 2500 rural businesses. Worcester-based Airband Community Internet will provide high speed coverage across market towns in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire. The project has benefitted from a £200,000 investment from the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE). It is expected to provide universal 2mb wireless broadband access across a 40 square mile triangle between Leominster, Ludlow and Tenbury Wells."
  • The East of England Development Agency (EEDA) has secured £0.5m through RDPE to help plug some of the gaps in rural broadband availability, according to The Engineer: "Local authorities, businesses, social enterprises and charities can all bid for a share of the funding to support community broadband projects. That could be to upgrade existing infrastructure to exceed 2Mbit/sec, or to install new hardware needed to adopt next-generation broadband with speeds of up to 50Mbit/s." More detail here.
  • An interesting article in PC World on a public option for low-cost broadband provision in the US: "The “public option” proposals in the healthcare bills were designed to create a new, low-cost player in the health insurance market. This, the thinking went, would apply competitive pressure to the large insurers, which dominate the market, and would eventually increase the quality and lower the costs of healthcare. The same approach might create those positive effects in the consumer broadband market. The government would provide a reasonably priced basic broadband service that’s available to all consumers. The broadband service would be administered nationally by an FCC-led program, and the service itself would be allowed by law to run over existing broadband infrastructure owned by cable and/or telecom companies. Such a program could also be run at the state or municipal level, so the people running the plan would be closer to the broadband network and to the customers it serves. In a slightly less "socialist" approach, broadband service could be administered by the large ISPs themselves, according to a strict set of service guidelines that the FCC would create and enforce. The broadband service itself would be basic. Since the FCC has set a goal for broadband service to be universally available at 4 mbps downstream and 1 mbps upstream by 2020, so why not set the bar there for the minimum speed requirement of the public plan? If people or small businesses wanted faster or fuller-featured broadband service, they could easily pay extra for higher tiers of service from the private ISP of their choice. But the public option would always be there as a safety net. This, of course, would be a massive undertaking on the scale of, say, Medicare. But given the growing importance of broadband access for all, shouldn't it be considered?"

INCA East of England NextGen roadshow report

Some very interesting points made at Tuesday's roadshow in Newmarket:
  • Malcolm Corbett, CEO of INCA, in describing the ever increasing impact of broadband technology, pointed out that if Facebook were a country, it would have been the fourth largest in the world by December 2009 and the third largest by February 2010. More on this here. Malcolm also mentioned that INCA are developing a series of case studies (FibreSpeed Wales, Digital Region, Alston Cybermoor, FibreCity Bournemouth, Manchester Corridor) and are contributing a UK supplement to the FTTH Council Europe's guide to fibre projects - more on this here.
  • Laurence Ramsey, Regional ICT Strategy Manager for EEDA, in describing the activities of Digital Partnership East, made an interesting point on the importance of coordinating investment in NGA in hard to reach areas: if the public sector isn't as inclusive as possible in procuring infrastructure (for example, by not supporting use of its backhaul by community projects), it further reduces the likelihood of remote communities ever getting connected by diminishing the incentive to invest. Laurence identified four roles for the public sector in encouraging NGA: demand stimulation, procurement (particularly in relation to well being powers), subsidising commercial & community operators and infrastructure design and build.
  • Community Broadband Network Chief Technology Officer Adrian Wooster introduced the Joint Open Network Exchange project. This is intended to create "a marketplace and clearing system for open access networks - a place where service providers can meet and trade with network owners and operators across Europe". In the UK, operators such as Sky, Virgin and BT currently offer tightly bundled triple- (phone, TV, broadband) and quadruple- (phone, TV, broadband, VoD) play packages. Their small margins and business models mean that such operators are reluctant to disaggregate services from their packages (for example, for delivery over a local open access network) unless you can, in Adrian's words, "bring them a million new customers". Clearly small scale local community broadband projects are very unlikely ever to do this. The JON Exchange project instead focuses on the interfaces between middle mile providers, ensuring that services can be delivered consistently across a range of different networks. One to watch, there's some commonality here with the OPLAN (open public local access network) initiative I think.
  • Tim Anderson, e-Service Officer at Norfolk County Council and Roger Turkington, Director of Operations at Suffolk ACRE described a range of initiatives going on in their regions. Four pilot areas in Suffolk (Haughley, Shotley, Alde & Ore and Bungay) will trial open access provision by harnessing public sector infrastructure. A new schools network being planned for Suffolk was also flagged as potentially offering low cost backhaul for community networks - the eternal missing link in community broadband projects.
  • Bill Murphy, Managing Director - NGA for BT stressed that BT is very interested in rural broadband, citing a recent initiative to provision NGA to the Kent village of Iwade - more details here.
  • Klaus Kammermeier of Corning Cable Systems gave an overview of Corning's solution for quick FTTH deployment: a modular system allowing quick joining and splitting of fibre optic cables via rugged screw connectors. Following 5 hours of training, four electricians were able to install 150 connections across 240 premises via an overhead deployment in 8 days.
  • Simon Towler of BIS/BDUK provided an insight into the new government's policy on universal service and NGA, in advance of the BDUK industry event taking place on Thursday 15th July. He re-stated the point made by Jeremy Hunt in his 8th June speech (followed up yesterday on his blog, confirming  "Treasury support secured to deal with "not spots" and rural superfast broadband pilots") on the importance of sharing infrastructure, further amplifying Jeremy Hunt's remarks by confirming that the re-use of existing public sector assets is also definitely in the mix - an opportunity for education broadband here I think?
A few thoughts of my own, following reflection on the day:
  • Several mentions were made of INCA's "patchwork quilt" analogy, reflecting a larger network comprised of smaller local and regional community networks. I wonder if this is to do such networks a disservice? The phrase reflects the home-grown nature of such networks, which is highly commendable, but, looking at it another way, a patchwork is something generally made out of scraps - which paints a rather less favourable picture of the resilience of networks such as, for example, NYnet? This may sound like semantics but I don't think it is: first impressions are important, especially when dealing with government officials and ministers who may be unaware of all the nuances of such a complex area. Better to give the the right impression from the outset?
  • Also several mentions of broadband as the fourth utility - an interesting phrase, but dangerous, as I think this is  still a long way from being the case for many. Utility implies supply that always (or nearly always) meets demand, the level of which is widely understood and catered for accordingly. Don't think we're yet at this stage in relation to broadband?
  • Finally, we have to remember issues around takeup: only around two-thirds of the country take a current generation broadband service, which is available to the great majority of the population. While there are some who may want to take a broadband service but can't, for a range of reasons, there are clearly several million people who are actively choosing not to do so. While I wouldn't for a moment advocate against the importance of broadband, we need to think long and hard about this issue in framing a truly inclusive broadband policy.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Wonderful Wordle

I thought it was time for a new picture on my blog (see left, click on the picture for a larger version), so I turned to Wordle to help me out.

Interesting that the five most used words on this blog as of July 2010 are, according to Wordle and in no particular order, "community broadband network infrastructure investment."

Nice to get some external scrutiny confirming I'm on the right lines!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Regulating broadband: Lessons from history

A very interesting piece on Larry Downes' blog on Albert Gallatin and the first National Broadband Plan - the one he sent to Congress in 1808, on the need to build a national network of public roads and canals - "No other single operation, within the power of the government, can more effectually tend to strengthen and perpetuate that union, which secures external independence, domestic peace, and internal liberty.” Some interesting commentary on Techdirt.

Downes commends Gallatin's insight in recognising the importance of private-public partnerships:
“Private capital, motivated by the hopes of profit, provides the bulk of the investment and absorbs the bulk of the risks. Federal and often local governments provide support in the form of land grants, rights of way, investments in basic research for key technologies, encouraging standards, and financial markets that created liquidity for instruments necessary to finance construction...Financing is essential, for infrastructure is characterized by heavy initial investments relative to on-going operating costs once construction is complete. The risk of failure is very real. If you build it and they come, to paraphrase “Field of Dreams,” the network can provide solid profits for generations. If they don’t come, you lose everything. Timing also matters. Traffic may arrive later than you think, by which time you had sold out your investment at bargain-basement or bankruptcy rates, only to watch others ultimately profit from your vision...In some cases governments provide outright subsidies for populations or geographies for whom the cost of providing service clearly exceeds any hope of profit under a traditional capitalist model. Serving these communities is important not merely for egalitarian reasons, however, but because of the increasing returns to scale that network technologies offer. The more people who are connected to a network, the faster its value to all participants increases. Many of those who cannot afford access, according to network theory, will contribute value beyond the cost of providing it to them for free or at a price below cost.”
I agree with this in principle, but with an important caveat: national and local governments need to provide a counterbalance to private investment. They should act as intelligent commissioners to procure and manage an effective, universally available, standards-based broadband infrastructure, creating a true partnership with the private sector's capacity and ability to innovate. And standards should be mandated, not just encouraged. This goes beyond the role Downes outlines above, which to me perpetuates the mistaken belief that the market will deliver of itself. That's the most important lesson from recent broadband policy in my opinion. Interestingly, the point about the more people that are connected, the greater the value of the network reminded me of the positive network externalities described in the ITIF's 2009 Need for Speed report. 

Downes goes on to argue that the US "lags not in investment or availability but in adoption": 95% of Americans have access to broadband, but only two thirds have signed up for a broadband service, paralleling the situation in the UK. Rather than looking to further regulation, the FCC should focus on providing incentives to adopt broadband, according to Downes:
"Blaming the lower per capita adoption - and using it to justify regulatory intervention - on the supposed failure of ISP competition, the absence of enforceable net neutrality rules, and the lack of meaningful FCC supervision of ISP business practices under Title I of the Communications Act are all red herrings. They ignore the historical lessons of Gallatin’s plan and the infrastructures that have been successfully deployed since then. Worse, they are leading the FCC down a rabbit hole of unnecessary regulation that is likely to do more harm than good."
Regulation is not without merit, but must be of the right sort if we are to learn lessons from the past and avoid the law of unintended consequences:
"U.S. railroads sunk into a morass of regulation and proved unable to compete with new modes and new technologies. Today, the most frequent activity for federal courts reviewing railroad matters is to review applications to abandon routes, which requires government permission...There are important lessons in the story of earlier infrastructures that will determine whether or not the implementation of the NBP succeeds or fails. History also offers important warnings the FCC would do well to heed as it pursues a parallel efforts to appoint itself enforcer of the neutrality principles that have presided without significant government involvement since broadband was invented in the mid-1990’s."
This "morass" was caused by the regulatory body, the Interstate Commerce Commission or ICC, seeking and gaining greater powers of enforcement, with results that Downes describes as "catastrophic". He commends the FCC's National Broadband Plan for its vision and recognition of the fundamental importance of broadband, and also the assumption implicit in the plan that developments will primarily be funded by private investment. This is the key lesson from Gallatin and the past, according to Downes.

But he closes by describing the FCC's intentions to reclassify broadband as "regulatory schizophrenia" and "high-minded but wrong-headed efforts to protect consumers from a harm that doesn’t exist with little consideration of the potential cost of doing so":
"On the one hand, we have the vision and inclusiveness of the NBP. The plan sets important stretch goals for access providers and as well as application developers. It establishes important roles for the Commission in supporting industry efforts and stepping in where needed to encourage adoption by unwired communities. On the other hand, we have the heavy-handed efforts to push the net neutrality rulemaking along with last week’s announcement that to solve the minor problem of a complete lack of Congressional authorization, the agency will undertake the legally-dubious process of giving itself the power to oversee broadband under Title II common carrier regulations. Those rules increasingly make no sense for the technology they were written to deal with - wireline phone service or POTS. Indeed, the lesson of the years since the 1996 Communications Act should be that Title II destroys value and diminishes service for nearly everyone, much as the ICC’s “just and reasonable” ratemaking did to the railroad industry - once the pride of American technology."
Downes is rather dismissive of the FCC/Comcast issue:
"The handful of isolated incidents where network management activities have inconvenienced some broadband users (some if not many of whom, in the Comcast case, were engaged in illegally downloading copyright-protected content using the BitTorrent protocol) hardly rises to the level of discrimination that justified the Hepburn and Mann-Elkins Acts. A few self-appointed public advocates, with broader agendas for nationalizing the media and communications industries, do not a Progressive or Grainger movement make."
However I would argue that there is an important underlying issue not addressed here - the lack of transparency Comcast demonstrated in its chosen approach to traffic management. This is simply not an acceptable way for private investors charged with building an essential new infrastructure to behave. It's not that they shouldn't manage traffic - this is only sensible in a bandwidth constrained environment - but that any traffic management practices should be made clear to customers. I would argue that Comcast's footprint in US broadband provision meant their actions constituted rather more than a "handful of isolated incidents", and Downes also disregards the many entirely legitimate uses of BitTorrent that Comcast's blunt instrument approach disabled at the same time: for "managing", read "blocking" in this context (see this previous post).

I agree with this remark though: "the poor fit between fast-changing network infrastructures and the slow pace of regulatory process." If anything's likely to bring the law of unintended consequences into play, it's surely this. Returning to my earlier point, that we can't rely on the market to deliver of itself, do some additional answers lie in empowering the customer (where the customer is local and national government, procuring and developing broadband infrastructure for its citizens)? Empower the customer to commission exactly what they want from industry, rather than regulate industry to provide what you think people need?

In essence, grasping the nettle of broadband provision. A lower risk strategy than relying solely on regulation perhaps?

Friday, July 02, 2010

US Unified Community Anchor Network (UCAN) gets $62.5m green light through BTOP

Great news from Internet2 in the USA:
"The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) today awarded more than $62.5 million in federal stimulus funding through its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to a group of national research and education networking organizations including Internet2...the group proposes the construction of the United States Unified Community Anchor Network (U.S. UCAN), an advanced 100 Gigabit per second network backbone that will link regional networks across the nation, including other projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The NTIA grant will be supplemented with an additional $34.3 million in contributions from the proposal partners and suppliers."
If my maths is correct, at current rates $62.5m is just under £9m short of the £50m which has just been removed from the UK Department for Education's Harnessing Technology grant for 2010-11. Here's what the UCAN will offer:
"U.S. UCAN’s coast-to-coast advanced infrastructure will, in partnership with regional and state research and education networks, connect America's community anchor institutions - schools, libraries, community colleges, health centers and public safety organizations - to enable advanced applications not possible with today’s typical Internet service. U.S. UCAN fills a critical gap, linking community anchor institutions together into an open, national network with next-generation capabilities, operated with end-to-end transparency and the high levels of performance uniquely suited to the needs of this community.
U.S. UCAN will ensure that life-changing applications such as telemedicine and distance learning are available to all community anchor institutions, including those in areas previously considered too remote or economically depressed to support advanced network services. Led by the same research and education networking community that has already connected 66,000 community anchors through partnerships across public and private sectors, U.S.UCAN will prepare Americans - now and in the future - to compete successfully in an increasingly competitive global economy.
The network will offer its services to community anchors nationwide through a new not-for-profit organization (also called U.S. UCAN), which will be directed and governed by a partnership of the research and education networking community and representatives of community anchor institutions. In essence, the network will be owned and directed by its stakeholders. As a first priority, U.S. UCAN will make sure that it meets the needs established by its governing body of community anchors.
U.S. UCAN provides a jumpstart in implementing the FCC National Broadband Plan released in March 2010 which recommends the development of a unified network dedicated to community anchor institutions that builds on the extensive investment the research and education community has already made in national network infrastructure and leverages the human expertise and collaborations that have already developed to greatly accelerate the delivery of broadband to all of the nation’s community anchor institutions."
See this previous post for some thoughts on similar possibilities in the UK. If funds permit of course.

Broadband investment: "Regrets, I've had a...well, none actually!"

This from Computerworld Australia yesterday:
"The World Bank’s lead ICT policy specialist has cautioned against pulling back on infrastructure spending like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN). In the face of renewed economic turmoil in Europe and uncertainty of the pace of recovery in North America, Dr Tim Kelly told Computerworld Australia it would be prudent economic policy to forge ahead with expensive infrastructure spending like that of Australia's broadband plan."
Kelly's comments in detail:
“It would send the wrong signal to the markets to back track on existing commitments to stimulus expenditure...We used the phrase "no regrets" investment to capture the idea that, even if broadband does not immediately deliver the direct benefits expected, in terms of jobs and competitiveness, it will certainly benefit the economy as a whole and therefore the indirect benefits (for instance in terms of capacity-building, opportunity creation or speeding up the general flow of information) are substantial. In other words, the broader, intangible benefits of investment in broadband mean that it is rarely if ever a bad investment...It is probably worth differentiating between impacts that would be slowed and other impacts that might not be realised at all. In terms of impacts that would be delayed, this would include the benefits related to GDP growth. World Bank research has indicated a relationship between a 10 per cent increase in the penetration of broadband and a 1.4 per cent increase in GDP. If infrastructure investment is slowed, then it would take longer to achieve the 10 per cent increase in penetration, in which case the increase in GDP would also be achieved more slowly. Eventually, Australia would catch up, but it would clearly happen much more quickly if a public/private partnership were in place. In terms of impacts that might disappear, here one would look at commercial opportunities that might be seized by companies in other countries where broadband is already better developed.”
More on the World Bank's e-Development Thematic Group (e-TG, "a global forum and community of professionals interested in the role of ICT in development") here.

Finland: universal service obligation for 1mbps broadband

As has been widely reported,  the Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority (FICORA) has this week set out an entitlement for 1Mbps broadband for consumers and businesses, at their permanent place of residence or business. From FICORA's press release:
"FICORA assigned 26 telecom operators as universal service providers in various parts of Finland. In their operating area, the operators have an obligation to provide a broadband subscription for consumers and business customers at their permanent place of residence or business. According to the amendment to the Communications Market Act entering into force at the beginning of July, the connection speed must be 1 Mbit/s. The requirements for the minimum speed of an internet connection have been specified in further detail in the Decree of the Ministry of Transport and Communications. According to the Communications Market Act, a universal service provider must be assigned if this is necessary in order to ensure the universal service provision in a certain area. Consumers must separately agree with the telecom operator assigned as a universal service provider on the obtaining of a broadband subscription pertaining to universal service."
Commentary from the BBC here; according to the article "96% of the population are already online and that only about 4,000 homes still need connecting to comply with the law." And an interesting take from the Guardian in its Technology Blog, comparing Finland's initiative with the calls to repeal the Digital Economy Act, the first law put up on a new government website where people can suggest laws that they want repealed:
"The contrast between Finland and the UK could not be more stark. Where Finland is treating broadband as being essential to its infrastructure, the DEA offers the potential for strictures where people could, in theory, be cut off if they are judged to have broken copyright law...Finland, of course, has good reason to want to make sure that all its citizens can get broadband. They're not solely about high-tech. It's also because Finland has some incredibly rural areas, as well as its cities. And it gets extremely cold in winter, which means that it's preferable to stay where you are than to travel long distances to work, if your work can be done via a October the communications minister, Suvi Linden, said that the mandate was necessary in order to improve the availability of internet in Finland's remote rural areas. In an announcement in September, Ms Linden committed to making 100Mb internet access - one hundred times faster than the connections mandated under the current law - available to all Finnish residents by 2015."
Every day the UK falls further and further behind it seems.

Breaking the broadband policy and investment impasse

A couple of interesting articles illuminating some of the issues presenting barriers to investment in next generation broadband. The first is a blog post by Paul Budde (MD of BuddeComm, an an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation), on how to move forward in telecoms and broadband policy. He draws the following six conclusions from current developments and circumstances:
  • Current regulatory regimes have not, or have only partially, delivered what they were intended for. They do not provide the necessary incentives for the changes that are needed.
  • Despite decades of trialing other business models the incumbent telcos generally continue to be utilities-based operators, and as such telecoms infrastructure largely remains a utilities-based national monopoly.
  • Fixed broadband will be critical economic and social infrastructure backbone for any country.
  • Fixed infrastructure technology is pointing towards fibre
  • Some kind of trans-sector development will take place and the economic and social benefits from this will be substantial.
  • Competition in itself should not be the only goal of regulation – a combination of competition and regulation can also deliver effective outcomes
The last three are particularly relevant to the UK's current situation. While recognition of the need to "do something" in relation to broadband is growing, unfortunately we don't yet seem able to come up with a suitable replacement for our previous reliance on the market to deliver both universal service and next generation access. Budde also stresses the need for leadership and vision, in terms of setting out a clear plan and long term goals for broadband policy, above and beyond providing a return for investors (thought that's important too of course). This is something that Australia has done, with is National Broadband Network, as has the US with its National Broadband Plan.

But I don't think the previous UK administration's Digital Britain initiative provided the same focus, conflating as it did broadband policy issues with too many other sometimes only tenuously related areas, such as, broadcasting, regional news and copyright. Broadband's just too important to be lumped in with other issues in this way. We need to do better, learning both from our previous mistakes and the great strides forward being taken elsewhere in the world.

The second article (from Wired, with an interesting commentary from Techdirt here) asserts that US ISPs have focused on appeasing shareholders rather than offering innovation, and that their current posturing in the US broadband policy debate relates much more to lowering their own costs at the same time as squeezing more money out of customers, including some potential new ones in the form of online service providers:
"Where are the major players in the U.S. broadband industry in all of this innovation?...they are jealous of online services that make money from ads...ISPs would love to find a way to be paid for both sides of their networks - from their users and from online services. And they want to get paid from the packets flowing inside their networks, too...They’d rather plot to get themselves some of that sweet money flowing to online services, instead of concentrating on what the country really wants and needs, which is fast, cheap and open internet access. The ISPs would rather be in a world where certain online services are locked only to certain ISPs - like ESPN’s streaming video is now - so that they can have a lock on customers that isn’t dependent on them actually building out the best infrastructure they can."
The article also suggests that ISPs' approaches to innovation lead to Comcast's mechanism for limiting peer-to-peer traffic, which "is the not the kind of innovation that Americans want or need", and suggests what really lies behind ISPs' reluctance to innovate:
"The dirty secret of ISPs is that even as broadband usage on their networks continues to increase 30 to 40 percent a year, their annual costs for shipping data onto and off the net's main pipes continues to fall. The problem isn't the cost of shipping data. The problem is that the large ISPs answer to Wall Street and instead of planning and investing for abundance, they prefer to spend their time thinking of ways to extract more money from customers without having to invest significantly in future-proof infrastructure...It's literally not in telecom executives' best interest to invest in broadband and solid networks. That's why you get companies like Time Warner trying to squeeze customers into limits on the amount of data they can use - not because bandwidth is expensive - but because building a real network is. It's far better, in their minds and for the stock price, to focus on bleeding as much from their current customers using self-serving policies instead of gaining loyalty by making networks that are generous, quick and reliable."
The Techdirt commentary goes on to offer a further warning about any signs of acceptance of the FCC's proposals from ISPs and telcos:
"While I agree it's not nearly as big a deal as the telcos are making it out to be, I still think that supporters of the FCC's move are underestimating what will result, and what kind of loopholes the telcos will gleefully make sure are present. With the recent reports coming out, saying that the telcos are willing to "agree" to legislation on this topic, combined with the fact that they've hired up a ton of ex-high level government officials to help craft any rules, suggests that what comes out in the end will be a lot more "friendly" to the type of short-term Wall Street-driven "innovation" that the telcos want."
The bottom line here seems to be that this is the situation you end up with if you let commercial vested interests get too close to an important debate. Exactly the same problem facing the UK, in fact.