Broadband UK: we need a vision

Until the politicians wake up to the importance of universal access to broadband, we are destined to keep muddling on

Until the politicians wake up to the importance of universal access to broadband, we are destined to keep muddling on

The communications White Paper - the precursor to the Communications Bill that will give teeth to Ofcom, and which is now being debated prior to becoming law next year - is built on noble aspirations.

Those who crafted the ministerial comments in the Communications White Paper certainly believe in the power of broadband to transform our society, yet their political masters have failed to grasp the policy nettle. They have failed to put in place a regulatory environment that positively encourages the creation of universal, affordable and effective access to broadband.

The result is a hotchpotch - availability is a lottery and depends where you live or work, and the regulator is bogged down with persuading BT to open its local loop to its competitors.

There is a basket-case of measures from the Broadband Stakeholders Group intended to improve matters. Meanwhile, the Treasury sees fit to impose a spectrum auction regime which, as both the Telecommunications Users Association and the Communication Management Association (CMA) warned at the time, is guaranteed to cripple the industry financially and to delay the introduction of broadband fixed wireless and 3G mobile.

Broadband is usually defined as anything which is an improvement on dial-up 64kbps. The problem with such a low threshold is that opinion is seduced into seeing ADSL, at 256kbps, as the target. It is not. ADSL is at best an interim technology and is one-way to boot. All it will do is move businesses and society away from the narrow-band, dial-up mind-set and make people aware of what can be achieved.

The sad fact is that BT is under no legal obligation to provide broadband connections and no other licensed operator will provide them if it does not make commercial sense.

Under current projections, some 40% of us will never be covered by the ADSL roll-out programme. The Broadband Stakeholders Group makes much play of the potential of satellite to the home. Why it should do so is a mystery: affordable satellite is essentially a one-way street and relies on a return path via a telco landline.

Two-way broadband is technically feasible (and is offered by a few suppliers), but satellite transponder capacity limits the number of customers it can handle and it is rather expensive - even in the US, the FCC insists that it is installed by qualified engineers.

Roll-out of broadband fixed wireless has been crippled by the spectrum auction, which imposed a £2m bid threshold for each licence, failed to offer a nationwide licence and resulted in just 60% of the country being covered.

Powerline carrier technology has stalled in a series of trials that ran into EMC buffers and there is no way that broadband mobile is going to substitute, in the next decade, anyway, for a fixed link to the small office.

The cable revolution has also run out of steam. What we have now is pretty much what we are going to get - there will be no further digging and no expansion of the network, but the cable broadband offering does have the advantage that it competes with ADSL and thus keeps BT honest.

That leaves fibre. But while there is no doubt that a massive fibre-to-the-home programme could solve our access problems far into the future, there is a little matter of cost and a more complex issue of competition.

In universal service terms, the cost of laying fibre to every inhabited building in the country would have to be shared, somehow, among all "subscribers". The last time this was seriously discussed was a decade ago, as The Cabling of Britain, when the cost was estimated at £20bn. Put that in context: BT spends £2bn a year on maintenance of its network. If we had had the bottle to begin the project 10 years ago, we would have finished it by now and the marginal cost would probably have been entirely affordable and could have been swept up in a universal service fund.

However, there are some emerging signs of sensibility and sensitivity. The Radiocommunications Agency, under pressure from industry and its imminent merger into Ofcom, has delayed its threatened auction of the 3.4GHz spectrum - that which could give us point-to-multipoint wireless in the local loop. BT is saying, loudly and clearly, "give us 3.4GHz and we will give you Broadband Britain - we will open it to competition by offering all service providers a wholesale product on the system".

More power to BT's elbow: if ADSL covers 60% of the population, and 3.4GHz covers the next 35%, that would leave only the odd 5% or so to be serviced via the exotic technologies such as satellite and mesh radio.

Meanwhile, the Computer Systems Policy Project (Motorola, Dell Computer, NCR and Intel) has an ambitious broadband vision. It is calling for a national effort to promote broadband deployments like those in South Korea and Sweden. Its report, Building the Foundation of the Networked World: A Vision for 21st Century Wired and Wireless Broadband, said US economic expansion was dependent on broadband growth. It recommended that by the end of 2003, 80% of US homes should be able to get data at 1.5mbps, and 50% of homes should be able to receive data at 6mbps. It also called for nationwide 100mbps access by the end of 2010. Now that's a policy!

What is the UK doing? We are examining aggregating demand as a means of stimulating the market.

The TMA 2002 telecoms conference will take place from 21-23 October in Brighton

David Harrington is former director general of the CMA

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