Security must be improved for broadband business revolution to achieve its potential

The government must give security more attention and resources, says CMA

The Communications Management Association began its "Broadband for All" campaignback in 2000, at a time when ADSL was still in the lab and BT was claiming that it was technically impossible to deploy.

When it began to be rolled out in Germany, that view changed to, "There's no demand." Then, following a CMA survey showing the opposite was true, and in the wake of the dotcom collapse, we were told, "There is no spare investment capital."

A change at the helm and in the heart ensued, and the rest isprobably going to be history. The focus for the past year has been on how and when broadband will be brought to all premises in the country. The spotlight has been on universal access, rather than universal service. But universal service is still very much an issue.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said, "IT contributes to efficiency in business processes and thus to economic growth, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, and broadband is probably the single most important, cross-cutting development in IT at this time."

The OECD's emphasis on small businesses is important because small businesses are often the local outlet of a major national organisation, or are a vital part of a supply chain serving many independent enterprises around the country.

As the roll-out of broadband gathers pace, so the national organisation and the supply chain manager begin to demand 100% access to all their outlets. That is to demand broadband in areas where telecoms companies say it might not yet be economically viable. Satisfaction of that demand, in turn, encourages the establishment of more remote outlets and more remote workers in places as yet unserved by broadband.

The holy grail for all those who are striving to reach the unserved places still rests with demand aggregation projects (where public sector bodies and sometimes business organisations, pool their demand).

The CMA has always been supportive of these demand aggregation projects, while remaining sceptical about their chances of success. This is largely because of the reluctance of major departments of state to subordinate their needs to external authorities, but also because of the difficulty of running private (enterprise) services over state-subsidised infrastructure.

Aggregation has had some notable successes around the country but seems to have stalled elsewhere. This is a great pity because without universal access to broadband there will be very limited access to joint government services available in the unserved areas.

Those users who already have broadband are getting to grips with issues emerging on the back of these new broadband-enabled services.

One major high street retail chain is now relying on its "remote workforce" for much of its administration and sales, and it needs broadband-enabled IP VPN connectivity between each individual and the enterprise intranet. At the same time, it is getting to grips with the legal and financial issues of homeworking.

Industry regulator Ofcom has launched a formal consultation on how best to provide numbering and addressing for broadband services (such as voice over IP), and the need for geographic as well as non-geographic numbering has been clearly identified.

Electronic numbering has received its first commercial trial and illustrates clearly some of the practical benefits of convergence to the broadband business user.

Many major companies are now stepping up their plans to reach out to customers with sophisticated, high-speed internet-dependent services, and using cheap, always-on connectivity to ensure transparency and interoperability between different applications in the supply chain.

By next summer we should be seeing the first fruits of what BT is calling the "21st century network", a root and branch upgrade of the entire UK telecoms core network, based on uncontended broadband access and edge-to-edge IP technology.

By 2008, the plan is that all of BT's customers will have been "migrated" to the new network and many of the problems and issues we see today will have been overcome; no doubt to be replaced by others we can see only dimly, if at all, at the moment.

All this progress is, however, still under threat from the problem of poor or inadequate security with always-on broadband connections. The average small business owner or manager has neither the strength nor inclination to get to grips with the arcane concepts of identity theft, authentication, digital signatures, intellectual property rights and encryption keys.

We need government to give security more attention and resources than it has so far been willing to allocate. If we do not make progress here, business confidence in the broadband revolution will remain qualified and we will not reap its full economic benefits.

The near future looks bright, and we could well be at broadband's tipping point.

David Harrington is head of regulatory affairs at the Communications Management Association

These issues will be examined in depth in a seminar at the CMA's "Broadband for business in the 21st century" conference on 20 October. For more on the conference, click here >>

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