Dear UK: You Need Universal AND High Speed Broadband

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On Friday I found a link to this UK article on with the title "Government should concentrate on 2Mbps broadband."

In it is the statement from Simon Piper of ConsumerChoices, "Focussing on national superfast rollout is great for government sound bites but it detracts from the need of simply getting everywhere connected with 2Mbps."

This argument is made in the context of the UK's push to establish a national broadband plan of its own. So this isn't a theoretical or philosophical point, but rather is an argument intended to shape national policy.

And what is that point? That a national broadband plan should focus all of its energy on getting everyone connected at a baseline speed instead of worrying about getting anyone connected at a superfast speed.

To date, the trajectory of the UK's broadband policy debates seems to be largely headed in this direction, and yet what no one seems to be realizing is that the debate between whether to focus on universal baseline broadband vs. next generation broadband is a canard.

Any comprehensive national broadband policy must focus on BOTH universal baseline and next generation broadband deployment.

Is achieving universal baseline broadband extremely important? Yes! Every last citizen must have access to the Internet. At least with today's Internet, that first couple of Mbps are more important than the next hundred. And the Internet does become more powerful if everyone's on it.

But to suggest that pushing to achieve universal baseline broadband should come at the expense of paying any attention to also pushing for the establishment of a next generation Internet infrastructure is misleading at best and a dangerous obfuscation at worst.

For starters, there are common elements to the solutions for achieving universal baseline and next-generation broadband. For example, the need to deploy more fiber deeper into networks. Wireless towers need more fiber, as do the central offices of telephone companies that are upgrading legacy telephone networks to DSL. So no matter your ultimate goal, you need more fiber to achieve it.

But this is really only just the beginning. Where this either/or proposition gets dangerous is in how it limits the scope of your country's ambitions.

Take statements like this, also from Piper: "Access to reliable 2Mbps connections all the time would be a great help to keep smaller businesses online and running at a level which will in turn support Britain's economy."

Now on the surface, this statement is true. If businesses don't have access to broadband today, then 2Mbps will allow them to start benefitting from the Internet, which will ultimately help the country's overall economy. But let's pick out a couple of key phrases and analyze them a bit further.

"reliable 2Mbps connections all the time" - It's great that they're keying in on the need for networks that can actually deliver the bandwidth they're selling. What they fail to mention, though, is that to get reliable networks like this you need a lot more fiber. Also, no word on affordability. Just because reliable 2Mbps connections are available, does that mean they're economical?

"keep smaller businesses...running at a level which will in turn support Britain's economy." - This is where things get dangerously obfuscated. This statement seems to suggest that 2Mbps is good enough for the UK's businesses to be able to use the Internet to grow both themselves and therefore the economy as a whole. But is that really true?

What if a small business has ten employees? If they're stuck with a 2Mbps connection then that means if everyone's online at the same time they each only get 200Kbps, which isn't enough to do a lot of what the Internet makes possible, like any video-based applications.

What if that small business has large files to send? Like an engineering firm sending architectural drawings to their general contractor or a doctor's office sending MRI results to be reviewed by experts or an independent production house sending videos to be proofed. These files can be many megabytes and even gigabytes that may take hours to send over a 2Mbps pipe.

What if that small business wants to host its own servers in-house rather than paying to co-locate them in a data center elsewhere? That'll be almost impossible over a 2Mbps connection.

What if that small business wants to start using high-end videoconferencing to have remote meetings? Depending on how high end the system is, you might not even be able to sustain one meeting with only 2Mbps of bandwidth available.

Now let's add another layer of context: this 2Mbps baseline discussion is primarily happening relative to rural areas.

So what does that mean from the perspective of the future economic viability of your rural communities if all small businesses can get is 2Mbps? Are we saying that we're OK with the notion that rural communities won't be able to support small businesses that rely on the Internet? That if you want to start a small business you have to be in the city to have access to the connectivity you need?

See, this is where this baseline-vs.-next-gen canard gets dangerous. If the article would've said that consumers only need 2Mbps, then that's one thing. But to say that 2Mbps will be adequate for small businesses ignores the realities of 21st century economic development.

Beyond these more specific points, let me also say how absurd I think it is for anyone to suggest that we should focus solely on universal baseline broadband and not put any thought to spurring the deployment of next generation networks.

First off, everyone agrees that superfast broadband is essential for the long-term economic health of any country in the 21st century. Piper is even paraphrased as saying so in this article: "superfast broadband is a great concept and essential to keeping Britain competitive in the global digital economy..."

With this in mind, why wouldn't we want policies that helped encourage superfast broadband deployment? This is especially true given two factors:

1. Superfast broadband takes a lot of time and energy to deploy.
2. The world's leading broadband countries are already way ahead of the curve.

So what this means is that all things being equal, a country like England is already behind the broadband curve, and yet it has people advocating that it do nothing proactive to attempt to at least stay even let alone catch up.

Think about that. Piper's saying that while superfast broadband networks are vital to our future, that it's not super important we do anything about them despite the fact that other countries are pouring billions into deploying superfast networks of their own.

Does that sound like a recipe for long-term success in the digital economy? To not just cede any hope of taking a leadership position, but to completely ignore the trajectory that other countries are on.

Of course, I understand that at the core of these debates is the age-old question of what government's role in the deployment of broadband should be, and that much of the push back against the idea of a national broadband plan that focuses on superfast broadband is the assumption that such a plan will include massive government subsidization of networks.

But I think that's too simplistic a way of looking at things. Instead I say that government's role is to identify what its citizens need, what they currently have, and then find ways to close that gap. Now, that could mean government writing a check, but it doesn't necessarily have to.

The point of the matter is that there's a need for the UK, the US, and every country to some day have superfast broadband. There's the reality that it's going to take a lot of time, money, and energy to build these superfast broadband networks. And there's the likelihood that the market alone won't get these networks built.

Now the question needs to be, what can government do to close that gap? Because without government playing an active role in doing so, then the best a country like the UK can hope for is universal baseline broadband while the rest of the world steams ahead at superfast speeds into the 21st century.

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Well said Geoff - you go right to the heart of both the UK NGA problem and point to a key part of the solution.

An option for SMART government intervention, maximum bank for buck, is to act as underwriter for that most local level of democracy and taxation, the Parish Council.

Parish Councils can levy precepts for the provision or upkeep of services in the common good.

A century ago, Parish Councils were instrumental in pioneering the provision of utility services we now take for granted e.g. piped water, electricity.

NGA is the 4th Utility, so it follows that there is a 21st Century role for the Parish Council Precept (PCP).

The challenge for local communities, across a patchwork of perhaps 15,000 localities spread across the UK in predominantly-rural areas, is how to make the significant CAPEX costs involved with FiWi deployment digestible for the local community.

By underwriting centrally, the Westminster Government could simply enable each Parish Council to spread this CAPEX over a decade or two, rather than a year or two.

County Councils are the obvious and natural choice as intermediaries in this process

- John Marsden, until recently Chief Executive of North Yorkshire County Council, acted to test the proposition that Parish Councils are best placed to determine local solutions, which in turn resulted in the successful NextGenUs NandS NGA FiWi project in Newton & Stape in the North Yorkshire Moors.

The incoming Government, particularly Dr Vince Cable (BIS) and Mr Ed Vaisey (Broadband), has a golden opportunity here:

Combine the PCP approach with Government action in directing the £200M available for the "2Mbps USC by 2012" Digital Britain Report deliverable into making available Digital Village Pumps (Isenberg's Dumb Fat Pipes) and achieving the Final Third First is now within reach.

There is a yet more pressing need in the UK for a publicly-owned, public sector broadband network. I take it as read that the same public sector network would provision the backbone of a national, universal network.

The rationale is as follows: IT is the enabler for citizen-centric transformation. The opportunities for service improvement and efficiency savings far outstrip any crude budgetary cuts that might be put in place. On this basis, IT services for the public sector could and should be delivered from regional IT services centres.

Having already been involved in a pilot project in the East Midlands, I am aware that one of the obstacles to going down this path is the lack of public sector comms links. Going to the private sector has proven, time and time again, to be unsustainable, given the commercial prerogatives of the Telcos. What's needed is a publicly owned broadband network that's is leased back, when appropriate, to the private sector. Only then will we see the economies of scale and service integration that are possible with a coherent, long-term public sector IT strategy.

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This page contains a single entry by Geoff Daily published on May 17, 2010 9:09 AM.

We Need To Regulate Broadband And The Internet Separately was the previous entry in this blog.

US Getting Beat By Tasmania In Race To Big Broadband Future is the next entry in this blog.

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