While only the Interim Digital Britain document has been published it has resulted in an online explosion as all the online broadband and news sites race to get their headlines out. The full eighty six page document contains a lot of information, and once the full report is published we can expect it to be much larger and provide a much firmer idea of what will happen in the various areas that is Digital Britain.
The report has five key objectives at its heart:
Areas of the report that affect the broadband community directly are those concerning Next Generation Access, Universal Connectivity and Digital Rights.
The report will lead to the creation of a Government led strategy group that will assess what contingency plans if any are needed to ensure Next Generation broadband is rolled out in a reasonable time frame. Lord Carter states that the regulatory bodies should seek to remove barriers that are holding back the creation of a wider wholesale market, e.g. rules defined to allow wholesale access to ducts in the street. The final report will also investigate the value for money aspect of any publicly funded incentive schemes. A key aspect towards improving broadband speeds and increasing consumer choice will be to require mobile operators with a 3G licence to expand 3G coverage to match 2G coverage. The report expects that around 60% of households will benefit from Next Generation Access based on current plans from firms like BT, Virgin Media, H2O Networks (now the i3 Group) and the 40 or so community solutions.
In the area of digital rights we can look forward to a new Rights Agency which will work with the full chain of digital content, from production to consumption. The aim of the agency will be to prevent unlawful use of content and enable technical copyright support mechanisms. In addition to the existing responsibilities providers have in terms of responding to court orders for user information of copyright infringers, they will be expected to track repeat infringements and provide this data on production of a court order. The position taken is clear; the government does not want to support obsolete business models, but also does not want to be responsible for creating the new model.
The part of the report receiving the largest amount of attention appears to be Universal Connectivity. No precise plans are set out, but the recommendation is made that 2Mbps be adopted as a basic broadband connection standard. The delivery method is not defined, but a mixture of mobile broadband, Wi-Fi, WiMax, satellite, cable, xDSL technologies are in the running. This Universal Connection should be available to all households by 2012, and the burden is not placed on any single provider but will be borne by the industry as a whole. Mobile broadband is explicitly mentioned as having an important role in reaching the extremities of the UK. With current broadband deployments around 1% are estimated to have no broadband available, and 7% connect at a speed slower than the proposed USO.
The report is very clear in its aim of creating a framework whereby everyone has access to a wide range of digital services, with an emphasis on ensuring the public can engage effectively with government at the local, regional and national levels. To this end a group with a Digital Inclusion Champion is to be created, to provide education in how to use new digital resources.
The report does cover a lot and at this stage there is still lots of room for shuffling things about and altering priorities. The report seeks feedback and comments which must be submitted by 12th March 2009.
Whilst we welcome the creation of a broadband USO, we are cautious about its specification at only 2Mbps. It fails to define other parameters such as upstream speed and latency. If the cost is found to be too high to implement we may see the final USO set at 1Mbps or even 0.5Mbps. Whether the consumer or business wanting the universal service will need to pay a chunk of the setup costs is another grey area, and we may see satellite broadband being the only option in more rural areas. It seems likely that for mainland UK, particularly areas that are unfortunate to be a mile or two away from decent broadband now, that the answer will be a 3G tower and as any who use mobile phones in these areas know, reception for even basic GSM services does not always match the coverage maps and can vary based on the weather and amount of foliage on trees.
Interestingly while BT has been making noises recently about how the recession may be affecting its ability to complete its expected £1.5 billion fibre roll-out the report does not seem to address this. The report gives the impression that it is up to the commercial operators do what they can, and only then will the pieces be picked up. Next Generation Community based solutions are to get the assistance of an umbrella body to provide technical and advisory support. This additional support will be critical as new rules and monitoring requirement relating to digital content come into play. One odd statement we spotted was that the report lists Carphone Warehouse, Tiscali, BSkyB, BT and Virgin Media as investing in end to end infrastructure, but the reality is that only BT and Virgin Media have any of their own last mile connectivity. The LLU operators simply rent the copper loop from BT Openreach, and there is no real sign of them embarking on a fibre last mile of their own with some very few exceptions (e.g. H2O Networks)
One big issue we foresee is that while 2Mbps is a big jump for those with only a 0.5Mbps or slower connection, how will these people feel when others in the larger towns and cities are getting 20Meg, 50Meg or faster services for around the same price. Digital Content is not going to get smaller, and consumers are already finding that sharing digital photos or sending them to online printing services can be a slow and tedious affair. Factor in the increasing number of devices that will require an internet connection, and people with a 2Mbps connection may well struggle to watch the Olympics in 2012. Indeed, it may even be that playing the online game of the day will be difficult with a connection of this speed in three years' time.