Broadband in the UK has been a commercial reality for eight years, and the last couple of years has seen a slow move towards next generation services. ADSL2+ with up to 24Mbps speeds was a small step, and the Virgin Media upgrades to DceOCSIS 3.0 represent a large jump. Fibre services represent the commonly held dream of 100Mbps connections to the home, but wireless keeps poking its head in.
The Ofcom Consumer Panel which does not necessarily have to toe the Ofcom line has spoken out on Next Generation Broadband (above 25Mbps is the baseline definition they use) and its worries about what may happen if a purely commercial roll-out is allowed to happen. The basic concern is roughly the same as existed with the ADSL roll-outs in 2001/2002, that many communities would be left behind. Many people view broadband as an essential but the availability figures mask a situation where plenty of communities have no broadband still, or one that is slow or unreliable. Areas like Ewhurst in Surrey are a long way from what one would call rural isolation, but it still has properties with no ADSL available, or very poor speeds and is the result of purely commerical led approaches. If fibre is the main choice for next-gen services, then the problem of being just feet from a fibre but not able to connect to it will be even more frustrating.
As an example of the difficulties involved in even getting reasonable first generation broadband, Ewhurst is a brilliant example, residents seem willing to raise money to help with the roll-out, but no-one appears to be listening since in the big financial picture they are but a raindrop falling into an ocean.
So what is the Ofcom Consumer Panel suggesting, in the first instance someone needs to do some work to identify the areas where commercial roll-outs are not likely to happen, and then address this rapidly. It is also asking those in charge of the purse strings to consider that while people may not be hammering at the door now for access to services like Telemedicine it may only be a few years down the road where visits to the GP surgery are much rarer than today, and given that transport costs are only likely to rise people may snap up any chance to save on travel costs.
Any subsidised approach to avoiding a digital divide needs to be careful to ensure it does not back a technology dead-end, or end up subsidising an unsustainable business model.
If the current commercial roll-outs continue we are likely to simply see the same old pattern, of lots of differing solutions across the UK, with the company with the deepest pockets slowly buying up struggling firms, or pricing others out of the market, resulting in just one or two firms holding the information infrastructure to ransom. It is this sort of commercial approach that has resulted in Virgin Media having a static coverage of the UK at around 50% of households. Some may consider that broadband is an utility and needs to be handled as such, but looking at the gas, water and electricity industries utilities are not always such a roaring success for the consumer.