The UK government’s focus on speed as part of its broadband strategy is misplaced and an alternative approach is needed. So says the Communications Committee of the House of Lords, which believes that the focus on delivering minimum speeds risks a continuation of the digital divide.
In its report, published this morning, the committee says that the Government needs to focus on access and create a ‘future proof’ national network that is built to last. If it doesn’t change its course, the Government’s investment in this area could be a missed opportunity.
As part of an alternative approach, the Committee suggest that broadband policy should be driven by the need to stop the growth of, and ultimately eliminate, the digital divide – rather than deliver enhanced provision for those with already good connections. Broadband provision should be considered a key part of our national infrastructure, and it proposes a new vision that focuses on enabling access. Committee Chairman Lord Inglewood said:
“The Government is quite right to make broadband a policy priority – barely an aspect of our lives isn’t touched in some way by the internet, and developments look set to continue apace in the future. A whole host of services will increasingly be delivered via the internet - including critical public services - and without better provision for everyone in the UK this will mean that people are marginalised or excluded altogether.”
The House of Lords Communications Committee wants to see the creation of a robust and resilient national network, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community. In turn, these hubs would provide a platform for local communities and businesses to access the broadband provision they want in the short term, and to upgrade that access flexibly as needs evolve over time. Here’s what the report actually says:
“We believe a reorientation is required in Government policy away from the absolute edges of the network and towards that part of it which brings fibre-optic closer into communities… As fibre is laid deeper into the network, to terminate in open access fibre-optic hubs, it will be possible – desirable, even – for networks, to be extended on further from these points to still further outlying hubs, and so on... Over time, therefore, we envisage a network in which the boundaries between the middle mile and the local access network increasingly dissolve, and the entire system may take on characteristics, less of a rigid hierarchy, and more of a living organism – an ever growing and ever more interwoven web.”
There are a total of 46 recommendations in the report (we suggest you visit the relevant page of the html version of the report to read them all).
Perhaps its most controversial proposal is that the Government and industry should consider the long-term possibility of switching terrestrial broadcast from spectrum to the internet. By switching television to IP delivery, it would free up radio spectrum for improved wireless broadband access.
But as Lord Inglewood explains, this would require a much-improved network first:
“If broadcast services move to be delivered via the internet for example, as we believe they may be, then key moments in national life such as the Olympics could be inaccessible to communities lacking a better communications infrastructure.”
But as Matthew Howett, regulation practice leader at consultants Ovum concludes, with so many recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met, “it’s likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream”:
"Despite criticizing the government for dismissing technologies such as white space, the report fails to make almost any mention of how mobile might contribute to bringing broadband to all areas of the UK, other than a recommendation that all existing spectrum should be handed over to mobile operators and current TV traffic moves over to IP – with seemingly no consideration of the consequence this would have on bandwidth demands or incentives to invest in the network.”
Dana Tobak, Managing Director of UK ISP Hyperoptic, says it is dangerous to trivialise the issue of speed. Yes, the Government should focus its strategy and funds on rural coverage with its aim to achieve access for 100 per cent of the UK by 2015, but speed is just as important as coverage:
“If the UK wants to be a global broadband leader, then we cannot just park the issue of speed. Clearly, addressing the speed and reach issues simultaneously are too big a task for the Government to swallow. So how about the Government just focuses on access in rural areas and leaves the issue of speed to ISPs like us?”
Andrew Walwyn, Managing Director of satellite broadband ToowayDirect, says that rural UK doesn’t have to wait for ‘coming soon’ promises of LTE or high-speed fibre, as satellite can do the job today:
“We are very confused by the news today from the Lords Communications Committee that the government’s broadband strategy needs to focus on reach to close the digital divide. Cost effective satellite broadband is already available to every person in the UK, enabling speeds of up to 18Mbit/s – significantly higher than the UK average of 7Mbit/s.”
Well yes, except that an 18Mbit/s downstream link with a 50GB data cap will cost you £100 per month. That compares with a 16Mbit/s connection and 60GB from Plusnet, one of the most popular and reliable DSL providers, for just £12 per month (provided you can get these speeds over your BT line of course). Is £100 “cost effective”? Depends how badly you need a decent internet connection. Walwyn certainly speak the truth when he adds:
“The fact is, in remote areas it just isn’t financially viable to connect them and as an industry we need to be far more honest about this.”
The House of Lords Committee says that the Government should undertake a detailed costing of its proposal, “not least because it removes the final mile – the most expensive per capita component of the network – from the costs requiring public subsidy”. Lord Inglewood concludes:
“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The Government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the Government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”
Ovum’s Howett adds that although he finds the report unconvincing, there are things that the government could and should be doing that it's not currently doing, and that in recent years there seems to have become an increasing disconnect between the government and regulator on policy aims and objectives:
“The most striking example is probably the long-awaited award of spectrum for 4G mobile services. At times the regulator seemed to lack basic understanding of what operators were likely to do with the spectrum and failed to design an auction accordingly. Similarly the government seems to have ignored warnings that the UK risks slipping behind unless the currently planned auction stays on track. With well-targeted intervention the government could make the difference it wants to. At the moment it seems unsure just exactly what it should be doing.”
The Committee (whose members have a broad mix of political allegiances) started its inquiry into superfast broadband in February 2012. Details of the inquiry, including evidence received, can be found on the inquiry webpage.
There’s a rather poor quality video of committee chairman Lord Inglewood on the Committee’s website (the audio quality is quite atrocious). The report, ‘Broadband for all – an alternative vision” is also available to download and view from the same page. Be warned – it’s a huge report, and we’ve only been able to skim through the major points so far. There’s a lot of reading to do – if you believe any of its recommendations will be followed up…
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