We need vision for next-generation broadband, not complacency
Michael Cross in The Guardian.
What's depressing is the complacency. The sheer head-in-sand, not-invented-here, civilisation-ends-at-Folkestone complacency. I'm talking about Britain's broadband policy. And I confess that, until a few weeks ago, I was among the guilty ones.
Ofcom's Future Broadband consultation (tinyurl.com/364agq, now closed) claims to propose "a policy approach to next-generation access". But what shines through 117 lacklustre pages is a complacent message that what we've done up to now has turned out pretty well, and with any luck should serve us through the next generation. As the parachutist who forgot his kit said, "So far, so good... so far, so good...".
But Ofcom opens the debate by explaining why our strategy, of leaving things to the commercial sense of operators of bundled services, will not see us through. The reason is that the copper network infrastructure has had its day. It's time to get seriously fibred.
As the document puts it: "Next-generation access will involve fundamental changes to the infrastructure of the underlying network ... this will involve the installation of new cables for at least part of the route between the customer and the service provider, which involves very high levels of investment." Ofcom's attitude is that this investment will happen in good time, as and when companies like BT find a commercial case.
Two problems. One is that the current economic environment is not conducive to "very high levels of investment", especially if betting on new products and services. The other that the UK's position in the world broadband league (which five years ago was reasonable, hence my own complacency) is slipping. In Japan, one-third of Japanese broadband networks are already optical fibre to the home. On visits to the Netherlands and Sweden I've seen entire towns where multi-megabit broadband, fixed and wireless, is as much part of the local infrastructure as sewerage is.
This is where Ofcom's complacency really grates. While observing that some countries may be ahead, it says: "We do not yet see evidence that the UK will be significantly disadvantaged economically or socially as a result."
OK, we do not yet see hard empirical evidence - mainly because it does not yet exist. But in three years, five years or 10 years, it will.
Consultation on the document has already closed, sadly, but several critics have got their cases in. One response worth reading is from Manchester city council's One Manchester project (tinyurl.com/yrqbv3, PDF). It condemns a "very cautious and risk-averse" approach which "does not exactly inspire confidence that we are able to aspire to be a global leader".
In particular, the Manchester team points to the threat to social cohesion if a gap opens between those who have broadband and those who do not. This should concern a government relying on broadband to the home to underpin new policies in education and healthcare.
No one sensible is suggesting that the taxpayer immediately start digging the trenches for a new national grid. But the state does have a role in encouraging innovation. We need vision, not risk-aversion and complacency.