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Drive for superfast broadband switches up a gear

Industry, government, regulators to plot route in secret

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A high-powered cadre of broadband industry policy wonks, watchdogs, and politicos has ramped up the Westminster debate over our creaking internet infrastructure ahead of a key government meeting next week.

Discussions around high speed next-generation broadband infrastructure assume that laying a new national fibre to the home network would cost about £15bn. The South East-centric Crossrail project, an infrastructure investment which will link east and west in London, is set to cost at least £16bn, Ericsson CTO John Cunliffe pointed out at the Westminster eForum event yesterday.

The cost of new fibre could be spread over 50 years, he said, as currently lab-bound passive optical network technology would manage data growth into the hundreds of gigabits per second for decades to come.

While countries like South Korea and France have pressed ahead with installing the infrastructure, it's very early days for the UK.

An array of issues will need to be resolved before a metre of new fibre is laid. Among dozens of sticking points, delegates asked vague questions over wholesale models, sources of funding, BT's role in investment, wireless alternatives, and provision in rural areas.

Several speakers agreed that simplifying the planning red tape that has to be negotiated before installing new lines and cabinets should be a top priority for the government.

Lib Dem MP Dr John Pugh said all the major parties had a "policy vaccuum" around the future of access to the internet economy, however. The government has been quiet on concrete proposals. Pugh said the Competitiveness Minister Stephen Timms might have a plan, "but he's certainly not going to tell The Register".

The Westminster eForum event acted as a dry run for next Monday, when the Department for Business, Employment and Regulatory Reform (BERR, formerly known as the DTI) will host a summit aimed at plotting the UK's next generation network investment.

Peter Phillips, a high-ranking Ofcom regulator responsible for its strategy policy, told the eForum that the UK had done "quite well" in the current generation of broadband, but that the lessons learned must be applied to future markets.

"BT should not have an unfair avantage in retail markets in order to persuade it to upgrade its network," he said.

There was concern from several quarters, including Ofcom, over how to open the debate and engage the public. Stephen Timms' office at BERR has told us that journalists are banned from attending the summit next week. Which isn't a very good start, is it? ®

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