All good things start off with a plan, and Broadband as part of the UK National Infrastructure has been mentioned in the National Infrastructure Plan 2010 released by HM Treasury 2010. Alas what is missing is the detail, i.e. this is a plan that announces we will have a more detailed plan in December 2010.
1.5 The Government aims to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015 and a functional level of broadband access for everybody. Studies, estimating the impact of broadband on output and employment in the UK, suggest that rolling out superfast broadband in the UK could have a significant positive impact both on gross value added in the economy and on employment in the information and communications technology sector and the wider economy. With the right broadband infrastructure, government can:
- enable improvements in business productivity and growth through more efficient ways of working, and more efficient communication and exchange of information with customers and suppliers;
- enable better and more efficient ways of delivering public services; e.g. through improvement in the quality and delivery of education services to people in more rural and remote areas or improvement in the quality and delivery of healthcare services; and
- enable growth and job creation through new business formation and growth in the technology sector.Extract from National Infrastruture Plan 2010
The wording of the above section is crucial to understanding what we may have in 2015, in that the plan is no guarantee of superfast broadband being available to everyone. There is also no definition of what superfast actually means. Most people are presuming that this means a broadband service offering connection speeds of 25Meg or faster. The amount of work done to be the best network in Europe will depend on what other EU countries do, and what metrics are used to measure best. For example, at the moment the UK generally is one of the cheapest and best covered EU countries for broadband. The choice of services at 100Meg though is severely limited but then its never fully clear what the reality behind the advertising of fibre services is across the EU. League tables will of course be produced, but given the tendency for consumers to seek out the lowest priced product, this means that average connection speed will always be a long way behind what can be purchased. It is often forgotten that close to 50% of UK homes already have the option of 50Meg broadband from Virgin Media and 100Meg is expected to be announced later this week.
4.40 The Government has announced that it is committed to the UK having the best superfast broadband network in Europe by the end of this parliament, and to ensuring that everyone has access to a basic level of broadband on the same timescale. The Government will publish a National Broadband Strategy in December 2010. This will provide more detail on the full range of policy, legislative and funding initiatives that the Government is undertaking in support of its broadband vision.
4.41 A total of £530 million will be invested over the Spending Review period to support the UK’s broadband network, benefiting around two million households, including in some of the most remote areas of the UK. As part of this investment, the Government will also pursue superfast broadband pilot projects in North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Herefordshire, and the Highlands and Islands.
4.42 These public sector funds are in addition to the planned private sector investment in UK broadband infrastructure; as evidenced by the £2.5 billion that BT is investing in the fibre upgrade of its network.Extract from National Infrastruture Plan 2010
Everything hinges on the content of the report that is due in December, some 18 months after the previous Governments Digital Britain report. The distinct danger here is that as a few months are added for various reports to be commissioned and written, firms looking to invest may be put off by the uncertainty generated.
So what is the likely situation of the UK broadband landscape in 2015? Probably 15 to 20% of homes having access to a fibre to the premises (FTTP / FTTH) product, around another 50% having access to a fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) or fibre/co-ax hybrid product. Perhaps 5 to 10% of homes covered by a variety of wireless/fibre/community solutions, leaving around 20% reliant on the current exchange based solutions of ADSL and ADSL2+. The political way out of the problem of long lines is to offer vouchers for subsidised installs for two-way satellite services, which once KA-band satellites are up and running, should be more affordable and have better usage limits and be available to close to 100% of UK households (listed properties and those without a clear view of Southern sky being the ones missing out).
The oft repeated war-cry of fibre for all, is one the UK cannot afford if the estimates of £29bn for fibre to the premises are correct. Fibre to the cabinet for all UK telephone cabinets has been estimated at £5 billion, so to get a decent solution to perhaps 97% of UK homes we are looking at perhaps £3 billion on top of the money that firms like Virgin Media and Openreach have already spent. The £530m announced recently, may be enough to do something for 2 million homes that currently get nothing or under 2Mbps, but only if spent frugally and is not wasted on expensive reports and trials that do not turn into commercial services.
The competition to be best will be tough. Finland is working to provide 100Meg for everyone by 2015, on which basis we look set to lose. That is unless 'everyone' has a similar definition to what is used in the UK, when we often mean any number above 90% is good enough. The Netherlands is another country that will be hard to beat with cable coverage reaching around 90% of the population now and products providing over 100Meg available from the cable network.