UK prepares for super-fast broadband

The UK is making ̶0;good progress̶1; toward resolving uncertainties in its policies towards super-fast broadband (20-100 Mbps internet access), according to Antony Walker, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), the cross-sector advisory group.

A year ago, the BSG warned that the UK had just two years to resolve the uncertainties or its competitiveness would suffer. But in the past twelve months ̶0;we have seen significant progress in a number of the areas we were drawing attention to,̶1; Walker said, in an interview on 28 April 2008 with Engineering & Technology. As evidence of this progress, Walker pointed to Virgin Media̵7;s commitment to offering 50Mbps to over 9 million homes in the UK by the end of 2008, as well as to work by Ofcom (the UK regulator) and activity within government.

In its April 2007 ̵6;Pipe Dreams̵7; report, the BSG called on the UK government to ensure that by 2012 the UK remains in the upper quartile of OECD nations for broadband access and reach. The government has not yet adopted that target. ̶0;Part of the process for adopting that target might be a better understanding of the details behind the league tables,̶1; Walker commented.

What could the UK government do, given the not inconsiderable barrier of a £15bn price tag estimated for rolling out fibre to the home in the UK? Tax incentives? ̶0;I̵7;m not sure that the industry is asking for tax breaks,̶1; said Walker. ̶0;It seems highly unlikely to me, especially at a time when there is much less public funding available anyway.̶1;

The BSG has been studying models for public sector intervention, and its conclusions are due to be released in about a month. A range of different models have been studied, including regional and city-based and local community level. These models could give the UK government options for giving people access to super-fast broadband in locations where it is commercially uneconomic to develop them.

Economic efficiency
Walker̵7;s comments came after Ed Richards, CEO of UK regulator Ofcom, presented his vision for next-generation access and networks in a speech given at the IET on 16 April. Richards said he was confident that most developed markets would have very high-bandwidth networks ̶0;in 10 or 15 years time̶1;. As for Japan and Korea, which, thanks to their governments̵7; interventions, already have access speeds of 50Mbps today, Richards warned that government-backed solutions might not suit the UK. ̶0;The deployment [in some Far Eastern markets], is impressive and highly visible,̶1; said Richards. ̶0;More questionable is whether it has yet been proven to be economically efficient. Our research and discussions with colleagues in East Asia suggest there is exactly the same uncertainty about commercially viable new services on these advanced networks.̶1;

Rolling out a super-fast broadband involves a major civil engineering project. Ofcom intends to undertake a sample survey of the existing underground telecoms duct network and to ask whether there is scope to secure commercially viable access for fibre deployment through the networks of other utilities such as water and energy.

In February 2008, UK Business and Competitiveness Minister Shriti Vadera launched an independent review into how Government can help pave the way for the UK to move to next generation broadband networks. The review will be led by Francesco Caio, the former Group CEO of Cable & Wireless. Vadera said: ̶0;We need to prepare the way for the UK to adopt groundbreaking new technologies to ensure that we do not get left behind - competitively or technologically.̶1;

Virgin Media has held trials of the 50Mbps service in the towns of Ashford, Folkestone and Dover, which are all in the county of Kent, UK. BT plans a 100 Mbps fibre network to homes in Ebbsfleet, also in Kent.

Image Antony Walker, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group

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