Stephen Timms, the minister for competitiveness, has called for a road map for high-speed broadband deployment. He has announced a high-level summit on the need for public sector intervention to encourage investment in infrastructure in the United Kingdom.

“Other countries are starting to invest in new, fibre-based infrastructure, delivering considerably higher bandwidth than is available in the UK today,” he said. “As Minister for Competitiveness, I see it as one of my highest personal priorities that we have a high performance telecommunications infrastructure in every part of the country, enabling us to compete successfully on a global basis.”

The minister is planning to chair a high-level summit, bringing together key people from the government, regulators and industry representatives “to consider the circumstances that might trigger public sector intervention, the form that intervention might take and at what level it might sensibly take place”.

The new Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform brings together functions from the former Department of Trade and Industry.

Kip Meek, chairman of the Broadband Stakeholders Group welcomed the news. “Other countries are investing in higher speed broadband and the UK isn’t,” he said. “If we want to see the UK stay ahead amongst the international leaders in broadband, we must find a way to encourage timely and efficient investment. We’re not looking to government for all of the solutions, but we are looking for ministerial leadership.”

The BSG published a report in April, warning that unless steps are taken by government, regulators and industry, the UK risks widening the digital divide and falling behind its global competitors in terms of its broadband infrastructure. The report called for a concerted and innovative approach to regulation and policy making to achieve the right balance of investment incentives and competition to enable a market-led transition to next generation broadband.

It is estimated that upgrading the whole of the UK to a fibre-based network could cost £10-15 billion.

BT is reluctant to commit to upgrading existing copper connections covering the ‘last mile’ to the home to fibre because under the current regulatory environment it would have to make that infrastructure available to other operators.

In the United States, Verizon is rolling out a fibre-to-the-home network in some areas.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, fast fibre networks are already a reality. Ricky Wong, the chairman of Hong Kong Broadband Network, described fibre-to-the-home as a “foreseeable inevitability” that his company had prepared for three years ago by investing in infrastructure.

The broadband service provider has announced that it is phasing out its ‘entry level’ symmetric 10Mbps service, offering a minimum of 25Mbps, together with a range of speeds up to 1Gbps. The company says that the use of optical fibre allows easy bandwidth upgrades beyond this. It also offers enhanced reliability, as the passive optical network does not require electronic switching.

Faster broadband services do not necessarily need fibre-to-the-home. Cable television network operators are currently able to offer higher speeds over standard coaxial cables than available over copper telephone lines.

Virgin Media is currently testing a 50Mbps service. UPC Broadband in Amsterdam has demonstrated speeds of 120Mbps in a field trial and hopes to offer speeds 200Mbps or more with EuroDOCSIS technology. Ultimately, cable operators could even blow optical fibre through their existing conduits to bring fibre networks to the home.

The availability of high speed networks, not just to the home, but particularly for business use, is likely to be a key driver of economic growth. Countries that fail to invest in information and communications technology infrastructure could be left behind. Regulatory intervention may be required to help stimulate the investment required.

Any consideration of the future of communications services should not assume that broadband networks will be limited to the current speeds that are generally available today. In some countries, at least, high speed networks may lead to significant changes in consumer expectations and behaviour.