The key to a fast roll-out of high-speed broadband will be to stimulate and aggregate demand for it, says the chairman of the UK's main broadband advisory group.
Antony Walker, chairman of the Broadband Stakeholders Group, said high levels of pre-registration and pre-contract commitments, especially in rural areas, would give investors and network operators the confidence to build high-speed networks.
Walker's comments came on top of a BSG report, just out, that sketched different scenarios for rolling out broadband connections nationwide, and their costs. The cheapest, providing optical fibre to the telephone cabinet on the street (or kerb) would cost £5.1bn. The most expensive, providing each of the UK's 28 million households with its own optical fibre link, would cost £28.8bn, the report said.
The report is part of the BSG's input to the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform's (BERR) imminent Caio report on next-generation broadband.
BERR said 93% of UK households have access to an (advertised) 2Mbit/s connection. Urban users can buy it for less than £15 per month, but many rural users cannot get the same speeds or prices as urban users because they live farther from a BT exchange, says Which? Computer, a consumer rights advocate.
The government is keen to see faster broadband networks because it believes they will extend the reach of new applications such as high-definition video, the BBC's iPlayer video on-demand service and time-critical file sharing.
It expects they will also support on-line shopping, and delivery of public services such as personalised healthcare and distance education, as well as "the internet of things", where machines exchange data with other machines, largely independently of people.
Walker said the models developed by research firm Analysys Mason, ignored wireless technologies in addition to fibre, even though wireless technologies were likely to play a key role in providing high-speed access in rural areas. Wireless networks cost less than fibre-based ones because there is less civil engineering to do.
"Our purpose was to provide a cost model for the commercial deployment of fibre to the home and to the kerb," said Walker.
He said the high fixed cost component of the network relative to the variable cost meant that profitability was very sensitive to customer adoption.
He said commercial network operators would "deploy when there was a high take-up on day one". This might be hard to do in rural areas where there are fewer people to drive demand.
Walker said illegal file sharing by some peer-to-peer networks and high-speed download sites such as BitTorrent had helped to drive up demand. The government was clamping down on this, but there was enough legitimate content to attract users, he said.
Aggregating public sector traffic and applications, as North Yorkshire County Council has done with its NYnet 30Gbit/s optical fibre ring network, might provide a base load big enough to attract operators' interest, he said. "The government has still to define its role," he said.