Is Britain on course for a high fibre diet‾

Digital Britain is the UK\'s answer to the Obama stimulus package. It is about creating a new economy in which the communications sector is the driving force. Concentrate too much on what has gone before and you miss out on what is coming tomorrow.

While the government\'s commitment to a 2Mbps universal service obligation for broadband is a big step up (and in many ways more ambitious than plans announced by other countries for blanket coverage), other nations are formulating plans for deploying speeds of more than 50Mbps, and it is this scale and ambition that was lacking from yesterday\'s Budget announcement by the UK\'s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling.

Creating a universal service obligation at 2Mbps is important to reach the remaining 1% of the population without access to broadband, but it certainly falls short of Gordon Brown\'s ambition for infrastructure projects on the scale of the roads and bridges of the past. There is still hope.

More ambition is needed

The final Digital Britain report is yet to be published, and some rather ambiguously named funds in the Budget could possibly be used for investment in super-fast broadband networks.

The Caio review (commissioned in February 2008 to assess the need for public money to roll out superfast broadband) concluded that there was not sufficient justification for the government to invest vast sums. However, since then the economic environment has deteriorated sufficiently for the government to be pretty confident that the market won\'t provide a solution for ubiquitous coverage of the UK. So what are the options‾

The success of Japan\'s super-fast broadband roll-out has largely been attributed to the government having a well-defined goal. In a forthcoming report we compare the recently announced digital strategies of seven major countries and look at how each will fare in terms of super-fast broadband deployment and the access to spectrum that could be used to achieve it.

For example, in Australia and Finland the governments have committed to deploying super-fast broadband at speeds of 100Mbps to more than 90% of homes, and in Germany a minimum of 50Mbps must be available to the majority of the regions by 2014. In comparison, the UK\'s ambition of 2Mbps broadband for all looks incredibly feeble.

Attention to alternative investment models and mobile

Exploring alternative models to deliver higher speeds is also important. Open access models using public investment are one such example. This is the approach being taken in Australia, where the government will build a wholesale-only FTTH network over a seven to eight-year timeframe with a $4.7 billion investment.

The EU has recently earmarked a number of structural funds that are already being used successfully by small-scale infrastructure projects to bring fibre to many of the UK\'s rural areas. To ignore these would be a considerable missed opportunity.

The capability of the mobile sector to rise to the challenge shouldn\'t be underestimated either. A number of the digital strategies that we compared include plans for releasing spectrum that is suitable for wireless broadband.

In the UK, access to some of this spectrum (UMTS 900) is being stalled by disagreements about how it should be allocated. The hope is that the operators can agree among themselves a way out in the form of voluntary spectrum trades. If not then an imposed solution is imminent, possibly accompanied by a concession in the form of an extension of 3G licence terms.

All eyes will be on the final report in June.

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