Decimating the cost of broadband roll-out: the digital village pump

When a Roman Legion was “decimated” it suffered a literal 10% head-count cut. The UK public sector is about to be more than decimated by the IMF, unless the post-election National Government takes rapid and credible action in its first hundred days. Action to cut the cost of broadband roll-out by 50% (or more) and to use universal access to cut the cost of on-line service delivery by 50% and more should part of that hundred days.

It is now apparent that the cost of organising fibre to most of the country has been greatly exaggerated by those concerned to avoid having to admit to policy mistakes or to write-down recent investments. The Rutland Telecom 40 Mbps service to a community written off by other players illustrates what can be done by linking imaginative local solutions to existing backhaul services.


I like Simon Davison’s Analogy with the Digital Village Pump. In the US vision these pumps will deliver 1 Gbps streams for the local community to tap. In the UK the Regional Broadband Consortia are already working to deliver such streams to every local authority and 100 Mps streams to every school their budgets will run to. Add in needs of the Health Service and Local Government and Business and the way ahead is obvious – especially if local landowners are indeed willing to give free wayleaves and help with trenching and pole runs in return for free services to their farms, barn conversions and mini-business parks. 


Meanwhile the quality of satellite services, as packaged by the reseller, may vary as widely as those offered by local loop unbundlers, but these are already used around the world to bring low cost 2 – 8 Mbps services to isolated areas (plus emergency back-up, smart metering etc to entire nations). UK access will be similarly transformed if the satellite launch this autumn is successful. Meanwhile giving data mobiles to those responsible for front-line public service delivery (e.g. cummunity nurses, midwives, social workers, policemen) has already helped delivered paybacks of under 3 months in the UK. 


There are many provisos, but it looks as though the time is now ripe to move “the great broadband debate” on from “an expensive centrally planned big-bang challenge” to “an opportunity to set communities free to pursue low entry-cost, local incremental change”.


And if the incumbent ends up providing most of the back-haul and technical support … ca va …. provided they win the business in free and fair competition.    


So what is the role of Government, including Ofcom?


Here we have a clear political divide between those who believe in central planning and those who do not. Such a divide is not new. There was a similar debate in the 1840s over the rollout of the railways. Britain subsequently led the way into the railway age because it decided that the state should not even try to predict demand. But we should also remember that the subsequent roller-coaster of boom and bust involved long-range planning on the part of the great municipalities of the North (e.g. Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle) that should put the mandarins of 20th Century Whitehall, let alone 21st Century short-term “optimisers”, to shame.     


The result did indeed include duplication of effort – but it helped lead to the UK domination of World markets until the world tore itself apart in World War 1 – and the National Government of Lloyd George decided that its “Land fit For Heroes” should be planned by the silos of Whitehall – not left to the mix of municipal enterprise, free markets and national “inspectorates” that had created, funded and safety-checked infrastructure on which we still rely today.


Bearing in mind their recent track records, including Local Loop unbundling, the current UK sistuation on Spectrum allocation and the Digital Economy Act – do you really think that BIS and Ofcom will do a better job than the Victorians did with the railways?     


Should they not focus on their knitting?


 – including well-informed and “fair” (and what is “fair”?) decisons on matters such as:

  • competition in back haul for services to the digital village pump (the well-head for community networks, who-ever provides them) 
  • spectrum
  • information to consumers (business as well as consumer) on quality of service (to enable informed choice), including on throughput and resilience.