In talking to the Observer on Sunday, Gordon Brown announced plans to help curb unemployment in the UK by public funded investment in projects which could include high-speed broadband.
"When we talk about the roads and the bridges and the railways that were built in previous times - and those were anti-recession measures taken to help people through difficult times - you could [by comparison] talk about the digital infrastructure and that form of communications revolution at a period when we want to stimulate the economy. It's a very important thing."Gordon Brown
David Cameron also pledged to ensure that the majority of the population would have access to fibre-optic broadband within 5 years, looking to gain universal coverage by 2018. But how will the Government help, and are these dates optimistic?
The cost of laying a national fibre network to every home / business has been estimated at between £15 and £29 billion, no one really knows how much it would cost in practice. Without public money, the project is likely to be a non-starter as BT have already rejected looking at a full roll out in favour of a slimmed down, $1.5bn fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) deployment which is supposed to be live by around 2012. Other providers are possible, but there is doubt over whether they would be able to do it cheaper since BT already have ducting and telephone exchanges which can be reused to help reduce the costs.
One problem faced by the large telcos, or any company looking to do this, is that they have to be spending their money in a way that will create a return for their shareholders. Whilst this may be possible for a proportion of the UK, when you start reaching out to the more rural areas, the costs of connecting users rises exponentially. With talk of a USO (universal service obligation) for broadband, this may eventually be applied to a future fibre network meaning that a nationwide deployment could be required.
No one doubts that a fibre to the home (FTTH) deployment would be a good investment, future proofing our telecommunications network, and bring us in to line with other countries who have a first-class telecoms network. The questions remain over exactly how much it will cost, how long will it take to make a return on investment for shareholders and how the government can kick start this investment to benefit our economy for the long term.