Future gazing is always difficult, but if asking enough people who are involved in that future you can often get a pretty good idea. At the Westminster eForum, the consensus appeared to be that the UK is set for a digital divide in 2015, with the last 10% of homes and businesses stuck with a basic 2 Mbps broadband connection, while others enjoy a fast, reliable, content rich 25 Mbps or faster.
Most crucial at this meeting was an overall view that the UK will NOT meet the current Governments target of being 'best in Europe' with regards to broadband. Undoubtedly there will be countries with a better penetration of fibre to the home (FTTH), but the current commercial plans from Virgin Media and Openreach networks means around 66% of the UK is going to meet the EU 2020 speed target by 2014. The next ~24% is meant to get there with the current BDUK funding, and the last 10% will get an uplift from nothing or the very slow, to what is still fairly slow but at least functional 2 Mbps.
The news about the last 10% of the UK only getting 2 Mbps is not new, though in some coverage it is being portrayed as a surprise. There is hope for this 10% of the UK, where the level of BDUK funding is not enough to bring superfast broadband, and that rests on £300m currently earmarked for broadband spending between 2015 and 2017. There is also the €9.2 billion to help meet the EU targets, so hopefully the UK will get some to bring those final areas up to speed.
Perhaps one message is clear, if you are in the final 10% of the harder, more expensive to reach parts of the UK, superfast broadband is some six to ten years away, therefore private initiatives between local business and residents may be the way to move forward. In a worst case, the recent KA-band satellite services can offer a 10 Mbps downstream with 4 Mbps upstream. Once LTE reaches deployment stages, some may find this mobile-broadband technology can provide an option to rural areas if there is coverage. Interestingly one plan on the table for rural United States is to use satellites for the backhaul and a wireless network to distribute it around a community.
On the question of will we be the best in Europe? Based on the metrics the Government is going to measure this by, then yes it looks a pretty sure bet. Why? Because whilst many EU countries will win on the numbers with FTTH/B, they will score poorly because these connections are often limited to one retail ISP.
The BT Group Director of Strategy and Policy at BT considers the EU target of 30 Mbps to all citizens by 2020 as 'not achievable for any country'. We agree that for commercially sensible projects it will not be sustainable, the only way it is possible will be with heavy subsidies to push fibre or very fast wireless close to the user. The question when there is so much uncertainty economically perhaps should be, yes we accept that grand goals are worthy, but should we commit to spending ever increasing amounts to get superfast broadband to every citizen? Remember that they may have no need or desire for it, and the cost may impact delivery of other services to the wider community.
Some degree of political scoring has taken place over broadband, with the previous Labour Government pointing out that its 2 Meg universal service commitment was set to be implemented by the end of 2012. Given the state or lack of progress by May 2010 on this, meeting that target in just 30 months looked ambitious, though possible if one used a satellite broadband voucher scheme. The danger with that timescale is that councils to meet targets would have taken more technological cul-de-sacs, e.g. the use of Openreach BET (Broadband Enabling Technology) in large numbers, thus meaning any later speed targets would have been more costly to achieve.