Thursday, 15 July 2010

Broadband target pushed back ...

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt today announced that the 2Mb/s by 2012 target, which he had previously dismissed as unambitious, was unachievable. He said the target will have to be pushed back to the end of the current Parliament in 2015.
He still said Britain should have “the best broadband network in Europe by the end of this parliament”. Meanwhile, Finland's target for 2015 is for 100 Mb/s. Ours will not compete. Broadband speeds, worldwide, are expected to continue to grow – 8-fold in 5 years, 64-fold in 10. Just as a five-year-old computer has a hard time coping with today's applications, so a broadband speed of 2Mb/s in 2015 will seem as inadequate as a speed of 256 Kb/s does today.
It is worthwhile looking in more detail at the targets. How can we fall so far behind? Britain's focus is on the date by which every home will have a 2 Mb/s service. Finland concentrates on the core infrastructure. Its target is to ensure that fibre backhaul sufficient to accommodate 100Mb/s service is available within 2 km of every home and business. The presumption is that, once this is done, market forces will provide the "last mile" connection to the home. Rutland Telecom's success demonstrates that this could also happen in Britain, where suitable backhaul is available. Our national strategic target should be to establish the core infrastructure – the rest can follow through a combination of market provision and local initiatives.
Fibre must come within reach of every home and business (within 2 km for wired connections; within 30 km or more for small communities that con be connected by wireless links). This is an essential prerequisite for sustainable provision of broadband speeds that keep pace with those enjoyed by our competitors. In Singapore, which has a much greater population density, 1 Gb/s fibre to the home is being installed today.
Our strategic planning should concentrate on the development of this core fibre network. A fibre cable is as cheap as copper to lay, and can provide ten thousand times the bandwidth. It requires less maintenance and has an expected lifespan of over 30 years.
Hunt's calls for effective use of capacity in existing networks, and for exploitation of sewers and roadworks to reduce the costs of laying new fibre are welcome. To address the growing digital divide, we also need a strategic review of current fibre infrastructure, cooperation and open access to maximise the effective use of this infrastructure, and targeted investment to bring fibre to areas currently out of reach. This investment should be stimulated by removing – for shared-access passive infrastructure – obstacles such as business rates on fibre and masts, and Crown Estate levies on sub-sea cables.
Today's announcements gave no hint of a strategic plan. The issues of next-generation rollout are well-studied. Reports such as Alcatel-Lucent's Fibre Nations white paper (2008) set out clear challenges to governments. Unless these are addressed we will continue to fall further behind.
Our interim Digital Scotland report provides more detail, and your comments are welcome.

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