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Chi Onwurah MP Accuses EU of Bias in Favour of Ultrafast Fibre Broadband

Friday, Jun 15th, 2012 (1:34 pm) - Score 718

The local MP for Newcastle Central and Labour’s shadow minister for innovation and digital infrastructure, Chi Onwurah, has criticised the European Commission (EC) for having a “bias in favour of fibre” and switching its EU state aid rules (here) to focus more on “ultra-fast” (100Mbps+) fibre optic FTTH style broadband networks.

The comments were made during this year’s Global Telecoms Business Innovation Summit, which took place on Tuesday this week at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel in central London (UK). The event was specifically geared towards asking what politicians could do to boost investment in new broadband services.

During the event several panellists were asked for their opinion on the EC’s new guidelines, which appear to suggest that State Aid (public subsidy) should support fully fibre optic broadband networks even when a Next Generation Access (NGA) style service (e.g. wireless) already exists or is planned for the future. Two responses stood out more than others.

Labour MP Chi Onwurah said:

The European Commission has always had a bias in favour of fibre and I think they’ve found a way of manifesting that bias legitimately. I’m also concerned that lack of industrial policy and new investment may make it difficult for us to stay at the forefront.”

Europe’s Digital Agenda strategy, which has been in place since May 2010 (here), certainly appears to support some of what Chi Onwurah is saying. The strategy seeks to ensure that, by 2020, everybody has access to internet download speeds 30Mbps+, with 50% or more of EU households subscribing to a 100Mbps+ service. Whether or not it is a bad thing that the EC has decided to focus on ultrafast fibre is open to debate.

However, one of the most interesting remarks actually came from the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG), which advises the UK government on its broadband policy.

Richard Hooper, Chairman of the BSG, said:

There’s the assumption that superfast broadband is the issue anyway. There’s little or no evidence for the benefits of superfast broadband anywhere in the world. The generations I see flowering around the world live in the mobile space so I’d prefer to spend private sector money to get everyone going and one to ten megabits and spend the rest on mobile broadband.”

Telecoms markets vary between countries, with many developing nations focusing on mobile because they never had a viable national fixed line infrastructure in the first place. By contrast the UK’s market has historically been more focused upon fixed solutions where there is now more maturity, though mobile does look set to become more dominant in the future.

As to the question of whether superfast broadband is actually needed? That depends on your time-frame, definition of superfast and expectations of future access needs. An October 2010 report commissioned by the BSG concluded that “there is no pressing need to implement technologies” that can deliver more than 20Mbps (peak) before 2016 (here).

The present day problem is that getting speeds of even 10Mbps to everybody would still require new infrastructure because the existing ADSL / ADSL2+ technologies, which continue to dominate, can’t keep up. Ofcom recently found that the average speed for a 20-24Mbps ADSL2+ connection was 7Mbps. Meanwhile demand and the quality of online content, especially for IPTV and video services, continue to rise.

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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