Monthly Archives: February 2009

“Digital Britain” – where’s real universal access?

I’ve finally had a chance to read the interim “Digital Britain” report prepared by Simon Carter, the Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.  The report surveys a vast swathe of issues including copyright, radio spectrum reform, and television.  I was most interested in what it had to say about responsibilities for providing next generation (higher speed, fibre or 4G broadband) access, universal service, and digital inclusion.

Next generation access (NGA) is important because most of Britain’s internet traffic currently runs on copper. Broadband on copper can be slow, and congested. The telecom operators have not invested in fibre in many parts of the country, and that is part of the rationale for spurring investment in NGA.  But the report stays far, far away from any suggestion that rural or deprived areas would benefit:

Competing NGA infrastructures can drive down prices. But they can also drive
availability, particularly as mobile operators seeks to offer users the additional benefits
of mobility at increasingly higher speeds, and make available national offers which
fixed line players have to counter.

If these investments are carried to completion, we can reasonably expect at least half
of the UK population to have access to NGA services and possibly a periphery around
that- perhaps as much as 60 per cent or even more. (p.18)

Hmm, half the population?  As for the actual implementation plans, the report’s Actions mainly concern how to support a market-driven approach.  There is mention of the Community Broadband Network‘s fibre projects, and the creation of an umbrella group to provide technical support to community networks.  This will certainly help community networks get access to technical help, but as lots of research has already shown, there is no “out of the box” recipe for a successful community network.  They often provide benefits beyond connectivity in “market failure” environments.  Ofcom’s Consumer Panel recently published a report describing almost forty community projects aimed at developing local NGA.

So is everyone going to get universal NGA?  Probably not.  The report suggests that there will be a universal service guarantee – but it’s to provide 2.0Mb/second – by 2012.  With all this talk of next-generation networks, that seems a little bit like an advance apology for selling short some parts of the country.  The justification for the 2Mb level is based on British Telecom’s current service level, which leaves 1.75 million people unserved by 2Mb coverage.

All of this suggests a certain level of caution and “letting the market decide.”  But this could mean that Britain doesn’t ultimately capitalize on its potential.  There’s already been lots of criticism of the plan, and I agree that it doesn’t propose clear strategies, instead proposing the creation of “Task Forces” “Agencies” and “Umbrella Bodies.”  The Obama government has made investment in broadband infrastructure a key part of its economic recovery plans.  We should expect a bit more audacity – and forethought – from Carter and the British government.