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Dana Tobak on better broadband for Britain

This article first appeared in issue 238 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

.net: The government is committed to 2MB broadband across the UK by 2015. Is this the right ambition, or should it be focusing on social and economic outcomes?
Universal access to broadband is paramount, but we should be far more ambitious about speed. Part of getting people to use the internet effectively is ensuring that they have a positive experience, and for that speed is essential. In 2015, 2MB will be insufficient, and will restrict users in taking advantage of the latest tools and services.

In the UK, there seems to be a predilection for ‘making do’ and hitting minimum targets. If what we want is a fully connected country, we need people to have more than enough bandwidth – so that speed is no longer the conversation, but the possibilities that the connection enables.

.net: Is the taxpayer getting value for money?
Infrastructure projects driven by the private sector need to be funded by the existing customer base, future revenues or external funds. There’s no magic pot of money that enables societies to raise their infrastructure to the next level. The UK market has been conditioned to expect low-cost broadband, so the government has to step in to incentivise the existing players to undertake a substantial investment project with little to zero return in the short term.

With that in mind, it is essential the government continues investing in the UK’s broadband infrastructure. There has, understandably, been a focus on coverage, but the current programme will immediately require further investment once the universal 2MB has been achieved in 2015. The BDUK [Broadband Delivery UK] funding to stimulate commercial investment to roll out high-speed broadband in rural communities, as well as to enable ‘super-connected cities’ across the UK, is far more encouraging. However, [the government should] be even more ambitious with the targets. The taxpayer is getting significant benefits from the spend in the form of cheap super-fast broadband. But funds are being channelled to incumbents, which suppresses innovation and competition.

Broadband speeds have a direct correlation to our GDP. Presently, the UK internet economy is the biggest in the G20 [as a proportion of GDP] and is predicted to contribute £225billion by 2016. We stand to lose competitive value if we don’t act fast to future-proof our networks. The Chinese government recently allocated 80 per cent of its $303billion infrastructure investment to broadband fibre-to-the-home development.

.net: What is the long-term future for broadband: wireless or cables in the ground?
For 90 per cent of the population, it’s imperative that broadband is delivered via fibre-to-the-home – the technology exists to bring standardised, cost-effective 1GB speeds to the majority of UK businesses and consumers. For remote areas, where fibre is not cost-effective, there are options to plug the gap, such as WiMAX, 4G and satellite.

.net: Do UK planning laws help or hinder next-generation internet infrastructure?
The UK planning laws put power into the hands of individuals who perhaps do not understand the full implication of the decisions that they are making. They are more likely to be planning professionals than technology enablers. The right questions are being asked – for example, “Do we want our landscape cluttered with cabinets?” – but the right people aren’t deciding the answer, and they certainly aren’t accountable for a lack of connectivity or greater deployment costs.

.net: If you could change one government policy with the aim of fuelling growth, what would it be?
If the aim is to upgrade the UK infrastructure with minimum cost to taxpayers, the government should be concerned with the means as well as the ends. The current BDUK programme focuses the spend on big projects by big companies; a portion of the money should be made available to alternative operators who have viable business plans but require working capital to expand their scope. This could be done through interest-free loans, [to ensure] that the money gets returned to the taxpayers. According to the FTTH [Fiber To The Home] Council, 54 per cent of European FTTP projects are initiated by alternative operators. The UK should support alternative operators who are quicker to deploy new technologies and often accomplish this at a lower cost than the incumbents: a win-win situation for all involved.

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