UK govt's broadband ambitions: a long haul ahead

OvumGordon Brown’s announcement that his government intends to develop the UK as a digital world leader would be impressive if it was a new goal, and if it was backed up by an ambitious and well thought out national strategy.
But his reiteration of some of the goals outlined in the Digital Britain report published over nine months ago, combined with scant detail and comparatively low level of public funding commitment, makes it appear more like political maneuvering and less like a decisive step towards improving the UK’s broadband standing.
The announcement by a government of its intent to position its country as a “world leader” in the digital economy has become the rule rather than the exception. This is why Gordon Brown’s election-timely plans to ramp up the migration of public services online - while ensuring that high-speed broadband becomes akin to a utility - falls rather flat.
Many developed economies, ranging from the US to France, are rolling out NGA infrastructure and migrating more public services online. Many have also committed to substantial public funding (see France’s recent announcement of €4 billion of funding) or radical shake-ups of broadband infrastructure frameworks (see Singapore’s open access NGN or Australia’s national broadband network plan).
Can Brown put his money where his mouth is?
We have already commented on the proposed landline tax to fund national 2Mbps availability by 2012 and 90% NGA coverage by 2017 (see “Digital Britain: what does it mean for the UK's fixed telcos?”). However, the stated commitment to “super-fast broadband” needs to be refined: the majority of BT’s NGA network will be FTTC, which means a limit of around 50Mbps; this falls short of the 100Mbps now commonplace for world broadband leaders such as Korea and Sweden, although it echoes that committed to by mid-league players such as Germany. Nor will BT and Virgin be able to deliver the national high-speed coverage highlighted as a key goal on their own. This places an onerous burden on the new Next-Generation Access fund.
Framework for the NGA rollout uncertain
Public funding is only one strand of an effective and long-term NGA strategy. The government (via the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) has set up a consultation to determine how best to set up and deliver next-generation access funding. However, the fundamental nature of the questions posed by the consultation – uncertainty over how far the market will go and whether or not this should be a national, regional or sub-regional approach – underlines how this is just the start of what will likely be a long and contentious decision-making process. This will be exacerbated by the fact that there is little precedent in the UK for the creation of, for example, effective public/private partnerships for the construction of NGA networks to serve businesses and consumers. However, it also leaves room to drive forward new approaches. Projects such as the Yorkshire Digital Region initiative for high-speed broadband provision or the use of sewers to roll out open access FTTH networks in Bournemouth and Dundee are isolated but innovative examples that the UK needs to build on.
Care needs to be taken in pitching super-fast broadband as a panacea
The government was right to highlight the development of online public services as a key benefit of broadband development. However, many of the benefits referred to – for example, migrating public services online – do not require 100Mbps to the home.
Consumers would, however, benefit from improved broadband performance. The government-commissioned report on NGA risk in the UK states that “the UK is very well served with first-generation broadband, with speeds of between 2Mbps and 24Mbps”. The average UK broadband speed of around 4Mbps is low compared to many other European countries. Focusing on improving existing speeds is an important first step.