news In a new blog entry entitled “What can we learn from the UK?”, Liberal MP Paul Fletcher has lambasted the broadband policies of the Gillard Government, unfavourable contrasting them with the approach of the Cameron Government in the UK.
Fletcher starts off in the piece by pointing out the high amounts that Australia is spending to promote deployment of superfast broadband compared to UK and moves on to claim that the Cameron Government’s approach is much more pragmatic, flexible, private-sector oriented and competition-centred. Disapproving of government intervention, except where there is market failure, he is also highly critical of the one-size-fits-all approach of the Labor Government and is all for more tailored approaches with a mix of technologies.
The Cameron Government announced in December 2010 that it will spend £530 million (or A$1.23 billion) to promote the deployment of ‘superfast’ broadband (defined as more than 24 Mbps) in the UK. This amounts to around $20 per citizen of UK, whereas in Australia the cost comes around to $1600 per person, according to Fletcher.
Fletcher points out that the UK approach is to do it in stages, with the first commitment being to provide virtually all homes access to a minimum level of service of 2 Mbps by 2015. After the initial commitment is met, the government plans to promote ‘superfast’ broadband. In contrast, many Australian homes will have to wait well beyond 2015 for the National Broadcast Network (NBN) to reach their doors. Also, the Gillard Government by reaching for a highly ambitious goal of 100 Mbps is being foolhardy without a clear idea of what applications need that kind of speed.
In UK, delivering broadband is primarily a private sector matter. Government intervention is necessary only where there is market failure—in commercially less attractive areas like some rural and inner city areas. British Telecom (using a mix of ADSL, fibre to the node and fibre to the home) has committed that approximately two thirds of UK homes will receive fibre to the node (offering up to 40 Mbps) or fibre to the home (offering up to 100 Mbps) by 2015.
In Australia too, significant parts of the market will require public sector funding, but the Federal Government has taken an approach of pushing aside private sector everywhere — by funding a ubiquitous publicly owned fibre network. The Government is also paying Telstra and Optus to withdraw their extensive existing cable networks from service in spite of the fact that they can be upgraded to deliver 100Mbps.
Another point Fletcher makes is that UK policy, while recognising fibre’s pre-eminence, explicitly rejects picking technologies; it notes that other technologies including wireless and satellite should be part of the mix. In Australia, the Government is also using different technologies — fibre for the majority of the population, coupled with satellite and wireless in rural and regional areas.
Public funding in the UK, where provided, is being put in the hands of the communities and local authorities to use on infrastructure that suits them. A key design approach is to deliver ‘a central digital point’ in communities; in turn the local community will be responsible for extending the network to individual homes. A mixed technology approach will be taken, and local authorities will have a key role. This, Fletcher says, is a more flexible approach and more responsive to local needs instead of Labor’s one-size-fits-all centrally controlled strategy.
Fletcher also brings our notice to a report by UK communications regulator, Ofcom, which estimates that even though 57 percent of the homes were able to receive superfast services, less than four percent of them actually subscribed to it. This is significant as it suggests that consumer demand for superfast broadband is limited.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull