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No clear road-map for UK broadband future
Thursday 29 January 2004 13:11:00 by Andrew Ferguson

The E-Commerce minister Stephen Timms has been talking to the ABC 'Revolution at the Edge': Broadband Networks and Innovation conference this week. Unfortunately it would appear from what ZDNet are reporting that while a basic 0.5Mbps broadband service looks like being almost universally available by 2006, that the next stage in broadband roll-out that many countries are already several years ahead on will not happen until 2010.

Of course many will simply say, why the need for faster services, the 0.5Mbps and 1Mbps is plenty fast enough. The problem is that as other countries advance and the ways in which software is distributed and used chance, small companies may find themselves facing the decision of not being able to use ADSL based services since they are too slow, and forced to spend vast amounts on dedicated leased lines again. The rise of the 'home worker' has been in-line with the increase of low cost broadband to peoples homes, and even now if users are running VPNs, and VoIP phones they may find things struggling. Increasing the connection speeds to mroe than 2Mbps combined with higher upstream speeds will allow connections to multi-task much more smoothly.

It is patently clear that ADSL will not provide much more than 2Mbps to most of the population, but DSL variants like VDSL may allow much faster connections but this would require fibre being laid out to the street cabinets. Wireless networks offer some potential, but will 'nimby' problems result in patchy coverage, and the vast number of disparate providers will make it difficult for SME's co-ordinating access for home workers.

The logical conclusion is to push fibre based connections to all business parks and new housing developments in the first instance. We do not need to wait until 2010 to figure out what to do, the number of fibre installations in Europe mean expertise is readily available. Historically it has taken the UK almost 8 years from the first trials of 2Mbps ADSL in London to reach the point it is at now. If the UK does not start to provide fibre based services like other European countries in the next 18 months we will be too late. The UK was late to the ADSL party, do we want to be late to the next one?

Ministers like Stephen Timms should be pushing for assistance to developers to fibre up estates now, and ensure that Teleco's will hook these areas up. In the USA where existing cable companies are slow to react, local town councils are actually creating their own fibre networks for residents and companies. This is while the UK sees millions of tax-payers money going on closed networks for use by councils.

There is little point looking towards the UK regulator Ofcom to encourage this sort of activity, it is currently embarked on a year long review of the current market, which will probably only look at the less than 2Mbps arena. Vision and commitment is needed now, and where commercial realities mean companies will not take the risk, then perhaps public money may be needed. We call on all the various stakeholders in the UKs broadband future to ensure that 6 to 10Mbps connections are available and affordable in the UKs major urban centres in the next 2 two years.

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