A report from a Committee of the UK’s House of Lords – the upper legislative chamber – has recommended that the Government and industry should consider the long term possibility of switching terrestrial broadcast from spectrum to the Internet.
The recommendation was one of some 50 in the report – Broadband for all – an alternative vision – from the Lords Select Committee on Communications and suggests the Government broadband strategy’s focus on delivering certain speeds risks leaving people and businesses in areas of the UK behind.
Committee Chairman Lord Inglewood said the Government was quite right to make broadband a policy priority. “Barely an aspect of our lives isn’t touched in some way by the Internet, and developments look set to continue apace in the future. A whole host of services will increasingly be delivered via the Internet – including critical public services – and without better provision for everyone in the UK this will mean that people are marginalised or excluded altogether. If broadcast services move to be delivered via the Internet for example, as we believe they may be, then key moments in national life such as the Olympics could be inaccessible to communities lacking a better communications infrastructure,” he suggested.
“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset,” he continued. “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.”
The Committee suggests that the Government is preoccupied with speed rather than focusing on access and the imperative of creating a ‘future proof’ national network which is built to last. As a result, the Committee is concerned that the Government’s investment in this area could be a tremendous missed opportunity, albeit that it is not too late to change course. As part of an alternative approach, the Committee argues that policy in this area should be driven by the need to arrest and ultimately eliminate the digital divide – rather than deliver enhanced provision for those with already good connections. Fundamentally, the Committee reports that broadband provision should be considered a key part of the UK’s national infrastructure, and proposes a new vision that focuses on enabling access and reducing the digital divide.
“The realisation of the Committee’s proposal lies in the creation of a robust and resilient national network, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community. Open access to these fibre-optic hubs would provide a platform for local communities and businesses to access the broadband provision they want in the short term, and to upgrade that access flexibly as needs evolve over time,” suggests the Committee.
While the Committee accuses the Government of not thinking the issues through from first principle, a similar accusation is levelled by Matthew Howett, lead analyst, regulatory telecoms, at consultancy service Ovum, suggests that with nearly 50 recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met, the report is likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream.
“For a long time it was joked that the UK was on a ‘low- fibre diet’ and that the government’s broadband policy represented a ‘poverty of ambition for a digital Britain’. Today the report of the Lords Select Committee on Communications adds to these cries and calls on the government to set out an even bolder vision for broadband policy than is currently being followed,” he advises.
He suggests the report rightly criticises the vague ambition set out by the government to ‘have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015’, and calls for more clarity on speeds. “As ISPs themselves are increasingly criticised for the advertising of misleading speeds, it only seems right that the government is clearer when outlining its ambitions. It is also welcomed that the obsession should not just be on the availability of products with certain speeds, but also the number of people using them. Despite sixty per cent of all households having access to superfast speeds, just over six per cent are using them. Any government led strategy should also think about the poetry as well as the plumbing,” he says.
He suggests the report is noteworthy for its inconsistencies. “Despite criticising the government for dismissing technologies such as white space, it fails to make almost any mention of how mobile might contribute to bringing broadband to all areas of the UK, other than a recommendation that all existing spectrum should be handed over to mobile operators and current TV traffic moves over to IP – with seemingly no consideration of the consequence this would have on bandwidth demands or incentives to invest in the network.”