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Digital Britain Report – UK Next Gen Broadband Network Plans

Posted: 29th Jan, 2009 By: MarkJ
Disappointingly the Interim Digital Britain report doesn't actually say anything terribly new about the governments drive to help develop future next generation broadband networks. Instead it proposes the creation of yet another Government-led strategy group to examine the issue.

This strategy group would be designed to assess the necessary demand-side, supply-side and regulatory measures required to underpin existing market-led investment plans for next-gen broadband. You'd certainly be forgiven for thinking that this all sounds vaguely familiar; last Septembers Francesco Caio review (original news) comes to mind.

Similarly there's the usual splashes of praise for BT's £1.5bn investment (original news) in a future fibre optic broadband network, not to mention Virgin Media's good work on introducing a 50Mbps cable service (original news):

Digital Britain Report:

If these investments are carried to completion, we can reasonably expect at least half of the UK population to have access to NGA services and possibly a periphery around that- perhaps as much as 60 per cent or even more.

The Government welcomes these initial investments and will continue to look, in turn, at what more can be done with industry to provide a framework that is supportive of those willing to engage their capital to establish enduring networks for the future.

But as a nation the UK will need widespread Next Generation Access networks by the middle of the next decade, even if they do not become universal for some time after that. We should start to plan now and therefore return to this challenge later in this section.

The existing network will meet many users’ needs for some time to come. But if a substantive planning cycle for material network upgrade is not launched soon, then the UK will not have the necessary infrastructure in place when it needs it.

The report goes on to state that, at this stage, demand for services requiring maximum speeds of 100Mbps is very uncertain. But between now and 2012 demand for average speeds of 20Mbps is likely. It also points to the problem of growing congestion within BT's current broadband network. It finds that the operators 21st Century Network (21CN) programme will play a part in upgrading the network, though the author does not believe that this alone will solve the whole problem.

Net neutrality, the principal of making sure that ISPs give equal access to all online services, is also touched on and largely shunned. Ofcom states that provided consumers are properly informed, such new business models (giving more traffic to specific services) could become an important part of the investment case for Next Generation Access.

On the same basis, the Government has yet to see a case for legislation in favour of net neutrality. In consequence, unless Ofcom find network operators or ISPs to have Significant Market Power and justify intervention on competition grounds, traffic management will not be prevented.

In short it looks like we'll have to wait until the final Digital Britain report surfaces during this spring, which is when the new strategy group will reveal its findings. Otherwise it seems like earlier talk about the government putting public funds behind next-gen networks was a bit wide of the mark.

The Government is still not persuaded that there is a case for a UK-wide public subsidy of Next Generation Network deployment, since such widespread subsidy could simply duplicate existing private sector investment plans or indeed chill such plans.
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