The UK government commissioned a study of the status and future of next-generation broadband technology in Britain, and the results were recently released (PDF). The report, which takes its name from lead author Francesco Caio, provides a sweeping evaluation of everything from technology to access models, but it's the policy conclusion that is most interesting.
The report finds no need for significant government intervention to ensure access to higher speed broadband connections (yet), but it sets out a series of recommendations the government can follow, among them setting target goals and monitoring progress so it knows if intervention does become necessary.
Caio lays out a positive picture of current broadband adoption in Britain, noting that over 99 percent of local telephone exchanges are now wired for DSL, and 80 percent of those households that have a PC also have broadband (although those figures are little consolation for those left out). As a result, time spent online by the UK population is quite high, and online advertising revenues as a percentage of total ads are significantly higher than in other nations, including the US.
He recognizes that the UK doesn't score especially well by some standards, but argues that those are based in part on unreachably high intentions set by some governments and high capacity in other nations that sits unused as people opt for cheaper, lower-bandwidth connections.
The report expects that the existing infrastructure can be updated to handle increased broadband usage for roughly a decade, but next-generation technology (termed "NGA" by the report) will be increasingly important if the UK's robust Internet economy is to be sustained. Caio's reasons include increasing expectations for rich media from users, an expansion in the number and types of devices that access the Internet, and increased demand for mobile broadband. It's imperative that next-generation networks get built, but the report states that "the case for any major public intervention at this time is weak at best."
That conclusion is reached because both major and minor efforts are already focused on putting higher-bandwidth networks in place. Virgin Media and BT are already investing in DOCSIS 3.0 and fiber rollouts that will provide high speed access to tens of millions of customers over the next several years. On a smaller level, some communities and private developers have been wiring existing and new housing with fiber.
Nevertheless, Caio doesn't feel that the government should passively wait to see what these partnerships and private ventures accomplish, and he issues a series of recommendations that should help foster NGA growth. The government should accept that different types of service will be deployed in a patchwork of local and regional initiatives, so there won't be a single NGA service. As a result, many of the recommendations involve having the government set minimal standards of access and service.
These include ensuring that any wiring that goes in is open to all service providers. "Ofcom [Office of Communications] should consider the introduction of a 'must carry, must connect' rule," Caio concluded, "whereby local access networks cannot unreasonably refuse to carry a service provider."
Other suggested rules would mandate that traffic management measures that reduce bandwidth are apparent to users so that they can evaluate the true level of service they are receiving. Caio also calls for building standards to include information on any broadband wiring in place, again so that consumers can make intelligent choices based on hard information.
Other measures would reduce the cost and risk of private investments. The proliferation of different investment models, including public-private and cooperative, behind installing new wiring should be met with legislative efforts to codify them and legally define how they function, which would prevent unfortunate lawsuits like the one that has targeted a town-sponsored deployment in Minnesota. The government should also coordinate the wiring efforts with other infrastructure work that involves digging up roads in order to lower the cost; where that's not possible, overhead wiring should be allowed. Finally, Caio calls on the government to release radio spectrum to foster new wireless access technology.
Most of these efforts involve minimal intervention and financial investment by the national government; Caio expects that private companies are interested in doing much of the heavy lifting. But he's not firmly convinced that they will, and thus he calls on the UK to set official expectations for NGA penetration and create a panel that will evaluate progress. If NGA deployment falters, the government should be prepared to intervene, because access to higher bandwidth will be essential for the UK economy in roughly a decade.
While the report views private companies very positively, it's a far cry from some pro-business evaluations that seek to minimize any government role in insuring public access to what is becoming an essential utility.Posted on