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Technology / Data Centre

Lords: UK broadband strategy heading in the wrong direction

The Committee released its report into the state of the nation’s broadband, and pulled no punches when it came to pointing out what it believes are the foibles of the government strategy. The Committee believes that the government has focused far too much on headline speeds, rather than infrastructure quality, geographic reach and future proofing.

Since February, the committee has been reviewing the Government’s plans laid out by Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, which focused on giving Britain "the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015."

The government has set aside £530m to be used to rollout broadband with local councils, with Fujitsu and BT as the major contenders. So far BT has won most of the contracts, and has said it aims to reach 90% of the country by 2015.

BT is planning to offer 300Mbps connections to certain areas by year end, the company’s emerging market dominance has worried the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, who last month made moves to cap its wholesale rates.

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"It is our contention, however, that the Government have proceeded from a flawed prospectus, that the progress being made may prove illusory," the report reads.

"There has been… an absence of an all encompassing vision of pervasive broadband connectivity as a key component of national infrastructure."

The report proposes an alternative vision, based around focusing on access to the internet as a key utility, in order to stop the ‘digital divide’ in the UK from growing.

"The Government is quite right to make broadband a policy priority – barely an aspect of our lives isn’t touched in some way by the internet, and developments look set to continue apace in the future. A whole host of services will increasingly be delivered via the internet – including critical public services – and without better provision for everyone in the UK this will mean that people are marginalised or excluded altogether. If broadcast services move to be delivered via the internet for example, as we believe they may be, then key moments in national life such as the Olympics could be inaccessible to communities lacking a better communications infrastructure," said Committee Chairman Lord Inglewood.

"Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The Government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the Government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.""

The Committee would like to see the telcos rolling out open access fibre-optic hubs to every community, which would then allow individual businesses and communities to choose how to develop their own broadband access, with the ability to upgrade as needs evolve over time.

Andrew Ferguson of Thinkbroadband.com says that the Government did consider this model earlier, but rejected it.

"The report is very opaque and deliberately avoids mention of specific speed targets, and is critical of the current approach which means that some technologies that might help the final most rural 10% of the UK are being skipped as they fall below the speed targets," he said.

"Of course as a report that has little risk of becoming policy, it is easy for the House of Lords to propose what some see as the ideal solution. The key points that hopefully will be taken on board are that the UK needs a longer term view for broadband, as currently the only long term driver is the EU 2020 targets (30Mbps for all), with the UK Governments ambitions ending in May 2015, fortunately some local authorities are planning for the period 2015 to 2020."

Ovum Analyst Mathew Howett is also critical of the Committee’s report dismissing it as "nothing more than a pipe dream". Despite some 50 recommendations made, he said, there are no cost indicators or suggestion of how this expenditure would be funded. It also excludes wireless options and 4G mobile options.

"In recent years there seems to have become an increasing disconnect between the government and regulator on policy aims and objectives. The most striking example is probably the long-awaited award of spectrum for 4G mobile services. At times the regulator seemed to lack basic understanding of what operators were likely to do with the spectrum and failed to design an auction accordingly," he said.

"Similarly the government seems to have ignored warnings that the UK risks slipping behind unless the currently planned auction stays on track. With well-targeted intervention the government could make the difference it wants to. At the moment it seems unsure just exactly what it should be doing."
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