Britain’s broadband report

Here is one thing Britain is doing on broadband that beats Australia: they had an inquiry and a report. The Digital Britain interim report was released yesterday. You can download it here. Here is a news item on its findings. The first thing you will notice is that it isn’t just about broadband. Turns out that digital does not just mean broadband and the UK government has recognised this in the report.

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There is lots to digest. First of all, unlike Australia, it looks like the report authors are not yet convinced that the government should have a role in building next generation broadband access network as we are doing here in Australia.

The Government is not persuaded that there is a case now for widespread UK-wide public subsidy for Next Generation Network deployment, since such widespread subsidy could simply duplicate existing private sector investment plans or indeed chill such plans. However, as suggested above, a significant proportion of households will fall into the group between current market-led planned deployment and the ‘last few percent’ of households. This gap reflects the difference between a widespread next generation broadband network, desirable for national innovation, efficiency and productivity gains, as opposed to, in the very long-term, universal access to the next generation network for reasons of fairness and equity.

That said, it looked approvingly at local initiatives to invest in such networks.

The Caio Report also recognised that localised open-access models of broadband deployment had a potentially important role to play in Next Generation roll-out. This is particularly true when a defined and relatively stable local community can be engaged in committing to demand for such roll-out. In the Netherlands, the OnsNet project in Neunen has direct commitment from a high proportion of residents in a local community to next generation broadband. This significantly alters the economics by removing uncertainties over take-up. The issue then becomes long-term, stable finance.

A soft version of this model was successfully deployed by BT in the later stages of the roll out of first generation broadband to more rural communities. It has also been successfully deployed by organisations like the Community Broadband Network.

Local Government and Regional Development Agencies too are working on broader roll-out of next generation networks as a central part of local regeneration and economic development strategies.

This is terrific and sensible stuff. They cite some interesting examples of this going on.

Alston Cybermoor is a localised community project in Cumbria which aims to provide a fibre-to-the-home network in the most sparsely-populated parish in England. A local project to obtain first-generation broadband led to the creation of Cybermoor, among the first community-run broadband projects in the UK. Cybermoor is now looking to maintain their pioneering position by investigating the opportunities for fibre-optic technologies. By taking an intelligent approach to network design, financing and harnessing the power of the local community to drive take-up, Cybermoor can become Fibremoor at a cost well below usual estimates for such rural locations.

Digging started in January 2009.

See that. It is happening already and without the national government. That said, they see a role for governments in ensuring that there are some compatibility and regulatory barriers are removed.

The Caio Report rightly pointed out the key risk of such local developments: that we could see the emergence of unrelated and incompatible ‘islands of connectivity’. If local developments are to form the nuclei of a connected Britain beyond the point that the market will serve, they need interoperability and common standards.

An established set of standards could also provide ready-made template solutions of best practice, which local communities could adopt off-the-shelf rather than each having to start from scratch. This could, in turn, provide further momentum to local self-help schemes, in which the public sector needs play only a small part.

The Government is committed to working with community and local groups to develop interoperability and best practice standards to unite localised NGA projects.

Nonetheless, when it comes to basic broadband (up to 2Mbps), there is a case for ensuring universal connectivity. This is something everyone agrees with. What is good about the UK report is that it recognises that that is enough to do plenty of things in terms of information access and commerce.

Rather than drive high speed broadband infrastructure, the report argues that the government make it more attractive for consumers. For example,

The Government needs to drive to promote the adoption of e-public services by businesses and individuals. This requires careful design of how the services are delivered, but also the right promotion. For example a vigorous information campaign, combined with financial incentives, saw the number of businesses completing their Employer Annual Returns for tax online jump more than ten-fold in a single year, to well over 1 million businesses now.

But in order to maximise the impact of e-government, we also need to ensure universal access to broadband-delivered services at necessary speeds. That means having broadband which supports public services which are inherently information and audio-visual content-rich, such as education and health services.

Amen to that.

Basically, my initial read of this report is that it is broadly sensible. There is no pretense of a cost/benefit analysis and a thorough consideration of the options. Where is our broadband report, Mr Conroy?

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