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 "UK.gov 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.