UK's broadband future starts here

Time for Govt to act

It's been an important week for the UK's broadband industry. The publication of the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG) report on Monday and the Government's response has provided an opportunity for those with an interest in broadband to stand back and assess its progress - or lack of it.

One of the most surprising things about the debate of the last 18-months or so is how emotive it's become. The issue of broadband availability is viewed by some as one of those revolutionary technologies which people should have access to by right. But the slow development of broadband has caused concern among some business groups, for instance, that the UK could lose out internationally.

Only yesterday Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, told a conference in London that the slow take-up of broadband had dampened consumers' use of the Net. He urged politicians and corporate leaders to commit to broadband in a bid to ensure that consumers can get their hands on hi-speed Net access. While it's possible that Mr Gates' call for action might have been prompted by his wish to capitalise on the opportunities presented for his software and Internet business, the BSG report does address his sentiments.

Explaining why broadband is so important, the report says: "Broadband represents a major transformation in the UK's communications infrastructure and perhaps the most significant change since the achievement of universal telephony.

"Broadband represents an evolutionary step forward in terms of infrastructure...[that will] eventually lead to a revolutionary change in the content, applications and services that the broadband Internet supports and delivers," it said.

And using well-worn analogies it claims the impact of broadband will be as monumental as those changes to other national infrastructures such as rail, road, electricity and telecommunications.

While the report claims that it's possible for broadband to be rolled-out "without concerted government action" the BSG warns that it would take longer than first thought and that the deployment would be restricted to those areas where demand is greatest. If the Government just sat on its hands then it would "fail to meet its objective 'to have the most competitive and extensive broadband market in the G7 by 2005' and the UK would continue to fall behind its leading competitors".

The BSG put forward 15 recommendations designed to accelerate roll-out and take-up of broadband, and boost public sector adoption while ensuring a satisfactory regulatory environment. The Government accepted all but one - rejecting proposals to provide tax breaks to help roll-out infrastructure.

Instead, its strategy is to increase awareness for broadband and to use existing fiscal measures to help offset certain costs. It will attempt to encourage the sharing of infrastructure - especially in rural areas - and, as previously announced, aggregate public sector demand for broadband services to help stimulate the market. It also believes the provision of content is key and suggests ways to support new and engaging material.

But it begs the question - is this enough? The report has already warned what will happen if the Government does nothing. But are the proposed measures sufficient to inject a new sense of drive and purpose into Broadband Britain?

Clare Gilbert, chairwoman of the industry body ISPA (Internet Service Providers' Association), was heartened by the report and believes the Government is getting behind broadband. "We see tremendous signs of Government commitment," she said, arguing that on one level at least the Government's involvement had helped draw the industry together.

"The main role of Government is to carry on supporting and putting pressure on industry," she said, pointing to calls by ecommerce minister, Douglas Alexander, for BT to follow the cable companies' lead and set "fair prices" for broadband.

Vincent Pickering, General Counsel, at Bulldog - one of the few companies actively involved in local loop unbundling (LLU) and still snapping at the heels of Oftel to ensure that the regulator creates a level playing field for all operators - believes that the report is a good first step. "But the Government can always do more," he said, somewhat disappointed that the final BSG report was not as radical as some of the earlier drafts.

Paul Barker, of Freeserve, arguably one of those ISPs best placed to take broadband to the consumer mass-market, was more direct. "It is a pity that we find ourselves in this position having to play catch-up with the rest of the world," he said.

"Ultimately, it comes down to what customers think - how much it costs and whether it's easy to install. Whether the recommendations work remains to be seen."

Mr Barker's scepticism is echoed in part by Phil Worms of Scottish broadband ISP iomart. "The Government's response is great - everyone wants to see increased demand and competition. But when and how will it deliver?" he said. He believes the Government could do more - and quicker: "Aggregating public sector demand is something that should be a priority - something that could be done tomorrow."

In many respects, the only shared view among those involved in the sector is that that there is no consensus. Individual groups and businesses still hold different opinions - something which has much to do with the infancy of the sector as with any Government recommendations.

But there is a sense that the polarity between some parties is beginning to ease and that views are becoming less extreme.

The publication of the BSG report is a good time to take stock but it cannot be used as an excuse to pause. Pressure needs to be maintained in some areas - increased in others - to ensure that the progress made to date is not wasted. Too much time and money has been invested in broadband for people to take their eye off the ball. The Government has set out what it intends to do - now's the time to do it. ®

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Related Links

The First Report of the Broadband Stakeholder Group and the Government's response

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