Industry analysts are divided on a call by UK legislators for the government to stop worrying about broadband speed and start paying attention to outright coverage.
The House of Lords Communications Committee last week set out 50 recommendations for how the UK government can carry broadband development forward. They include establishing a national fiber optic network, dropping the need for speed, and ensuring broadband access for all parts of the country to reduce what the committee calls a “damaging digital divide.”
“Broadband policy should begin from the question: what should the UK communications infrastructure look like,” the committee states, adding. “We recommend that future broadband policy should not be built around precise speed targets end-users can expect to receive in the short-term, however attractive these may be for sloganeers.”
The committee believes government efforts should focus on FTTP access, however it acknowledges that is an expensive option and recommends the rollout of nationwide fiber optic networks as an interim measure. The network “would include, as a minimum, fully open access fiber backhaul within the reach of every community.”
Rob Gallagher, head of Broadband and TV research at Informa Telecoms & Media, welcomed the committee’s call, noting that politicians’ obsession with data rates – specifically with falling behind other nations in the race to 100-Mbps networks – is overshadowing the fact that many areas remain unable to access even basic broadband services.
“Our research has shown that there’s much more to fostering an Internet market than just bandwidth, such as the vibrancy of local content markets and cultural factors,” Gallagher states, adding. “As such, ensuring equality of access seems a much more laudable goal than competing in [a] meaningless global contest based on Mbps alone.”
However Matthew Howett, lead analyst of telecoms regulation at Ovum, is critical of the Lord’s committee report. He notes that calls for fair and open access to national fiber is “odd” because BT already offers non-discriminatory access to its copper and fiber networks, and points out various inconsistencies in the committee’s calls.
“The report mixes, at times, a good narrative of how we ended up where we are with some questionable recommendations,” Howett states, pointing to inconsistencies including the report’s failure to mention “how mobile might contribute to bringing broadband to all areas of the UK,” despite the call for access for all.
Even Gallagher concedes the report is likely to have little impact on government policy. “Whether the Lords’ counter-proposals are workable is another matter. Various models similar to those proposed exist, but are either unproven, are struggling, or would not easily translate to the UK market. In addition,” he says, adding. “[N]othing in the Lords’ report and the UK today changes our view that the market will continue on its current lines, ultimately resulting in a next-generation infrastructure largely owned and operated by the former state-owned monopoly, BT”