news A landmark report produced by the United Kingdom’s House of Lords branch of its parliament has recommend that fibre broadband be driven out “as close as possible” to end users in the country and that an open access national broadband network similar to Australia’s own NBN be regarded as a “fundamental strategic asset”.
Over the past few months, the UK Parliament has been holding an inquiry into what it calls ‘superfast’ broadband, as the nation struggles with many of the same issues which the Australian political system has in Australia over the development of the National Broadband Network initiative in this country.
Currently, the UK Government does have a target of providing superfast broadband, defined as 24Mbps, to at least 90 percent of premises in the country by 2015, and to provide universal access to “standard” broadband with a speed of at least 2Mbps by 2015. However, unlike in Australia, which is constructing its own Government-owned National Broadband Network, the UK model is progressing via a subsidy approach which is seeing the Government fund specific areas of infrastructure rollout in coalition with the private sector. However, in a new report produced by the House of Lord’s Select Committee on Communications (PDF here), the House of Lords has called for the country to implement a model technically more like Australia’s, with fibre extended as far as possible everywhere and open access networks.
“Government policy has become preoccupied with the delivery of certain speeds to consumers,” the report notes. “This, in our view, has had a detrimental effect on policy-making and the long term national interest. In this report, we propose an alternative vision for UK broadband policy, which, rather than being target-driven, makes the case for a national broadband network which should be regarded as a fundamental strategic asset, to which different people can connect in different ways according to their needs and demands.”
“The delivery of certain speeds should not be the guiding principle; what is important is the long term assurance that as new internet applications emerge, everyone will be able to benefit, from inhabitants of inner cities to the remotest areas of the UK. Access to the internet should be seen as a domestic essential and regarded as a key utility. The spectre of a widening digital divide is a profound source of concern which requires the Government to address its origin with greater vigour than we believe is currently the case.”
“Fundamentally, the Government’s strategy has fundamentally focused on the wrong part of the network—broadly speaking the outer edge and the margins, not the centre. We argue that the Government should be focusing on delivering a high spec infrastructure which is future proof and built to last; fibre-optic cable, the most future proof technology, must be driven out as close as possible to the eventual user. Then, as well as mandating open access to this optical fibre from the cabinet to the exchange, we need to ensure that there is open access to links between the exchanges that feed the cabinets, and to the higher level links into national and global networks.”
The House of Lords’ conclusions mimic the Australian Labor Party’s NBN project in a number of areas; revolving around principles of wide-spread fibre connected as close to housing and business premises as possible, open access to that infrastructure and a focus on the long-term potential of telecommunications rather than on short to medium-term specific speeds. In addition, wireless and satellite technologies would be used where it wasn’t possible to deploy fixed infrastructure.
One further recommendation the House of Lords made also contains a similar approach to Australia, although it goes further in its implications. The committee noted that it was increasingly likely that IPTV services delivered over broadband would increasingly start to replace traditional broadcast television services.
Consequently, it recommended that the UK Government, telecommunications regulator and industry begin to consider the possibility of switching off mass TV broadcast via the airwaves and instead provide this spectrum for re-use by mobile broadband companies. In Australia, the idea of switching off terrestrial television broadcasts wholesale has not been discussed, but the Federal Government has mandated the switchoff of analogue broadcasts so that this so-called “digital dividend” spectrum can be re-allocated towards providing mobile broadband services.
There are several key differences between the UK and Australia when it comes to the competitive broadband environment, however. In particular, although the UK has a much higher population than Australia — 62 million compared with Australia’s 22 million — the UK has a much higher population density commensurate with its smaller density, making it easier to deploy broadband to a much more condensed population.
The House of Lords noted in its report that the country’s former monopoly carrier, BT, was already spending £2.5 billion upgrading its network with fibre to the node technology which will provide speeds of up to 80Mbps to two-thirds of UK premises by the end of 2014, and Virgin Media’s cable network also covers around 50 percent of the country’s population. Fujitsu is also planning to deploy fibre to around five million rural premises in Britain, in collaboration with several partners such as Virgin and Cisco Systems.
In addition, the House of Lords report released this week does not recommend that the UK Government directly build its own NBN, as Australia is. Instead, it recommends that where government subsidies are being used to support private companies building infrastructure, that certain additional rules be placed around that investment — such as an insistence on technologies which could offer a “clear upgrade path” to fibre to the premises rollouts.
The news comes as debate continues to swirl within Australia about the future of Labor’s fibre to the home-based NBN project, with the Coalition pledging to substantially modify the project and use fibre to the node instead of fibre to the home technology, if it should win the next Federal Election. In addition, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott this week refused to confirm or deny whether the Coalition would sell off finished portions of the National Broadband Network infrastructure if it won the next Federal Election, stating only that the Coalition believed the private sector could deliver broadband to Australia better than the Government.
It’s hard to get your head around the precise dynamics of the telecommunications industry in the UK from reading this House of Lords report. As in Australia, the industry and the government’s interaction with it together compose a very complex situation tinged with a great deal of regulatory subtlety.
However, it does seem clear from the report that the House of Lords believes in the long-term revolutionary potential of fibre broadband as a technology which should be rolled out all the way to premises — and not just to neighbourhood nodes as BT is currently doing in the UK and as the Coalition is planning in Australia. Coupled with BT’s recent revelation that it would support the extension of its FTTN project to FTTH in some areas as an experiment, it seems clear that much of the dialogue around future broadband needs in the UK is focused around how to get fibre everywhere in the long term — rather than how to get certain speeds in the short to medium-term.
This dynamic has implications for the Coalition’s rival NBN policy. One of the key questions which the Coalition in Australia has not answered yet is what its long-term plan is with respect to national telecommunications infrastructure — is it factoring in to its plan an eventual shift to FTTH and away from its FTTN plans? And if so, why not simply deploy FTTH straight away, given that the Government’s current NBN plan is currently projected to make a return on that investment? These are clearly the sorts of issues the UK Parliament has been grappling with; and they need to be addressed in Australia as well.