[eWeek europe] When the government promises "the best broadband in Europe" what does it mean? We'll know in December.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has announced plans to publish a broadband strategy paper in December, following the news last month that the government will invest £530 million in the improvement of the UK’s broadband infrastructure.
Earlier this year, the coalition government pledged that the UK would have “the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015”. BIS’s forthcoming paper will outline the government’s strategy for achieving this aim, through stimulation of public-private investment and the removal of long-standing barriers to broadband rollout in the ‘final third’ of the country.
According to Robert Sullivan, head of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – the body responsible for publishing the strategy paper – there are three key ways to overcome the problem of rural broadband. By reducing cost, increasing demand and through public-private sector partnership.
“In that final third there is a role for all technologies. They all have an important role to play,” said Sullivan, speaking at a Westminster eForum on the subject of 21st century broadband. “The economics of each of them swaps over as you go further, to more remote areas. So that means that fibre solutions have an important role to play, wireless solutions and also satellite.”
Cutting costs and stimulating demand
Sullivan proposed reducing costs of rollout through the use of shared infrastructure and reuse of public sector networks. Demand can be measured through community engagement and registration projects such as BT’s Race to Infinity. The government’s digital champion Martha Lane Fox is also working on education projects to get the last 10 million people online.
Meanwhile, the government’s £530 million investment, together with international projects such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) – which recently provided a cash injection to help broadband rollout in the Shetlands – are giving an extra boost to private sector efforts. The benefits of such a partnership were demonstrated in September, when BT and the ERDF announced plans to deliver fibre broadband to 90 percent of homes in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
However, according to Tim Johnson, chief analyst at Point Topic, the government’s investment falls a long way short of solving the problem.
“Broadband helps more people, provides more benefits per pound and is greener than even the most modern railway,” said Johnson at the eForum. “George Osborne needs to shave another billion or so out of other investment programmes to give us a truly modern economy.”
Defining the ‘best’ broadband
However, the issue of investment is not the only obstacle to overcome. According to Sullivan, the paper will also help to define what “the best superfast broadband network in Europe” actually means, and outline the targets to be met. Sullivan said that this definition should be based on applications rather than numbers.
“We know that choosing one particular number or one particular target is probably not the best idea so we’re looking at something more like a score card,” he said. “The most important thing is that it is expressed in language that consumers and businesses would understand themselves. So not necessarily megabits and megabytes but what are the applications that businesses and people want to use, and are they frustrated in using those applications by the infrastructure?”
A recent survey by Cisco and the University of Oxford’s Said Business School placed the UK 18th in the world for broadband leadership, based on quality of service and penetration. However, the survey failed to take into account the problems of service in rural areas of the country.
Sullivan was reluctant to comment on the issue of fibre tax, believed by some to be the “biggest single barrier” to investment in next-generation networks. However, he said that ministers were planning to conduct a roundtable event to discuss the issue with stakeholders and work to ensure a level playing field across the industry.
Government To Publish Broadband Strategy