The UK government recently announced its strategy to deliver improved rural broadband services - one of the longstanding and well-documented problems facing the UK.
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The ambition to construct the best broadband network in Europe by 2015 is admirable, and the commitment of public funds with a plan to stimulate the private sector is sensible, but technology agnosticism is neither. Infrastructure investments should be thought about in the long-term, and only a fibre-optic connection running from start to finish - rather than simply to the street cabinet - will provide infrastructure able to deliver the high-performance symmetric connectivity that is needed to cope with the demands of tomorrow.
Many facets of our lives are now conducted through internet infrastructure - banking, shopping, talking, TV, movies, reading, gaming - the list is getting bigger, and with items such as cloud computing demanding more resource and quality of service. There is a danger that this round of upgrades will not adequately future-proof the UK.
The government's plan to deliver digital hubs connected to core backbone networks using fibre within virtually all communities is a step in the right direction. This leaves room for flexibility in terms of solutions for the final third and the possibility for deployments of fibre to the home (FTTH).
Austria's fibre lessons
Lessons could be learnt from the villages of Großschönau, St Martin and Bad Großpertholz in Austria which are working together to deliver fibre to every home in the region under the Forrest Quarter Fibre Co-operative. By pooling resources the three communities have been able to use economies of scale to construct an FTTH network passing over 650 homes and small businesses, at a cost of less than €1m. Local farmers have helped lay the fibre at low cost which keeps the investment within the community. This is a region where the incumbent Austria Telecom had no interest in providing even ADSL connectivity.
The main challenge faced by the Forrest Quarter Fibre Co-operative was finding a service provider willing to offer services over the network due to the small subscriber base. In the end the community formed a joint company with a regional ISP called WVNET to offer broadband and voice over IP services.
Now subscribers can also access IPTV services with the co-operative having bought and deployed an IPTV platform originally designed for a hotel chain; it's not highly scalable but adequately meets the needs of subscribers. What's more, the network is established as a LAN so to move information at 100Mbps among the community is absolutely free. Austria Telecom and other providers have now taken notice and begun to offer ADSL services in the region - funny how it costs in for them now.
Open access networks
Micro-community models are one possible route to FTTH infrastructure in rural regions; another model pursued extensively in Europe's leading FTTH nation is to build open access networks. The Swedish city of Västerås deployed its open access network in 1999. Established by a utility company and an industrial company operating in the region, the network now passes 60% of the city with 22,000 residential subscribers, 2,200 businesses customers, more than 9,000 government connections and 250 WiMAX clients. The network serves all within the region and competition is encouraged through a variety of service providers, now numbering over 35 and including major operators Tele2 and Telia.
People in Västerås don't worry about getting a 2Mbps line - they worry about which of the 185 services they would like delivered over their 100Mbps connections. The Västerås model has been applied throughout Sweden and according to research conducted by IDate for the FTTH Council Europe the country is approaching 15% of all premises connected with FTTH.
It will be interesting to see how the UK measures its broadband performance come 2015. The proposed measurement which incorporates cost, speed and take-up by percentages of the nation may suggest the UK will achieve the best broadband in Europe by 2015 but this would mask the reality of the bigger picture.
Our research shows the UK has less than 1% FTTH penetration and is one of only two European G20 nations in this position. Other regions in Europe are progressing with innovative models that deliver a completely future-proof infrastructure and have been for many years. By the time we are ready with FTTC (fibre to the cabinet), they'll be ready with near ubiquitous FTTH.