Broadband should be a key infrastructure provision, creating a national network that brings fibre-optic access within reach of every community. That is the conclusion of a report from the House of Lords Communications Committee, which is critical of the current broadband strategy of the government in the United Kingdom. Among other things it also urges government, regulators and the industry to consider the long-term possibility of moving broadcast programming from terrestrial transmissions to broadband, arguing that there will ultimately be an overwhelming case for broadcast media to be delivered via the internet.
Current policy appears to be focussed on short-term targets within the anticipated term of the current government. It aims to ensure that 90% of people in every local authority area in the United Kingdom will have access to broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second or more by 2015, with all homes and businesses having access to connections of at least 2Mbps. This, it is claimed, will deliver the best superfast broadband in Europe.
Some might suggest that these relatively unambitious targets, given that Google is planning to offer 1,000 megabits per second to consumers in Kansas.
The report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications suggests that the government policy is flawed and that current progress may prove illusory, in the absence of a vision of pervasive broadband as a key component of national infrastructure.
The committee proposes an alternative vision that focuses on enabling access and reducing the digital divide between those with broadband and the third of the homes in the country that still do not. It recommends the creation of a robust and resilient national network, providing open access to fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community.
“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset,” said Lord Inglewood, the chairman of the committee. “The Government’s strategy lacks just that — strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the Government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need — for profound social and economic reasons — for the decades to come.”
Rather than focussing on certain targets, such as the delivery of certain speeds, it makes the case for a national broadband network, which should be regarded as a fundamental strategic asset. It argues that broadband internet access should be regarded as a key utility, like water or electricity.
The prospect of a widening digital divide between those that have access and those that without, for reasons of geography or otherwise, risks social exclusion and leaving some people and businesses behind.
The report recognises that the country has various legacy infrastructures that do not reach some areas, overlap in others, and were constructed by companies in previously unconnected sectors.
Current government policy essentially involves a relatively modest subsidy to encourage investment in areas where the commercial case for constructing broadband infrastructure is weak.
The committee suggests that current emphasis on intervention in the local access network is misguided, and proposes an alternative vision of a robust and resilient national network providing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community.
It goes on to say that the regulator should consider obliging infrastructure owners to offer open access to fibre and the right to install equipment on relevant links in exchanges and other nodes.
While it does not currently recommend imposing a universal service obligation, it suggests that policy should take a long-term view and be directed towards universal fibre to the premises as an ultimate goal.
Among other things, the report suggests that the current use of radio spectrum for terrestrial television broadcasting is wasteful, given then most people watch television in fixed locations, implying that this scarce resource would better serve mobile applications.
The report remarks: “It is likely that IPTV services will become ever more widespread, and eventually the case for transferring the carriage of broadcast content, including public service broadcasting, from spectrum to the internet altogether will become overwhelming.”
“We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare.”
As and when this occurs, particularly if public service broadcasting channels begin to be delivered primarily through the internet, it suggests there will be a stronger case for a universal service obligation, echoing that for television and radio.
For many in Britain, the idea that television should be delivered down a cable rather than over the air still seems far fetched, although it is a working assumption in many other markets.
Television and video entertainment services are likely to be strong drivers of the adoption of high-speed broadband, drawing along many other public service benefits.
Meanwhile, the demand for mobile broadband will put increasing pressure on radio spectrum currently employed for television transmissions. Some of this is being released through the switch from analogue to digital transmission, but it may be prudent to consider the next phase of digital switch over to services delivered over fibre, cable and telephone lines, even if this currently seems a distant prospect.
The government’s current “keep calm and carry on” laissez-faire policy is pragmatic, driven by the agendas of incumbent interests rather than a clear-sighted long-term vision.
If anything, the House of Lords Communications Committee is also rather too concerned with suggestions on how to deliver broadband in practice rather than emphasising the economic and social importance of a more visionary approach.
It is a curious feature of the broadband debate that it tends to concentrate on matters of technology rather than public policy, and ends up talking about megabits a second even when it wants to be talking about social and economic benefits.
The report also largely ignores questions of cost and the scale of investment that will be needed for the United Kingdom to compete, let alone lead in the network revolution.
In this respect, the intervention from the Lords is a welcome but limited contribution to the debate.
Previously, when informitv has suggested that Britain should be looking to broadband networks to deliver television rather than terrestrial television this has been met with anything from scepticism to incredulity.
Now at least it is on the agenda for debate, as we await a forthcoming white paper and eventually a new communications bill that may define the national telecommunications and broadcasting landscape for the next decade and beyond.
Broadband for all–an alternative vision from the House of Lords Communications Committee is available online at the parliament web site