BSG comment

The broadband speed debate has collected data on the speeds received by those who visit their site, and compared them to the maximum speeds these users signed up to receive. Similar to the recent research from the BBC and, they found that the majority of users did not receive the maximum speeds that they signed up to.

This is not a surprise, of course. The speed of a broadband connection depends on many factors, including the number of other users online at the same time, the distance of a connection from the local exchange, the tuning of the modem in the home, and even faulty electrical goods within the home, which are clearly outside of the control of ISPs (see this excellent atricle in PC Pro for tips on how to improve your broadband speed).

But is speed really the be all and end all of broadband performance? There are other aspects of a broadband service that impact on performance, as I have discussed before, and these are often overlooked.

Improvements in these factors that affect performance could make far more difference to the current broadband experience than improvements in speed alone.

So what are the benefits of next generation broadband? The economic story part II

Following the earlier piece, I thought I’d briefly set out what the economic benefits are that are identified in our ‘A Framework’ report, in order to illustrate where we think value would accrue.

The largest categories of private value in the report are: doing things that we do now, but more efficiently; doing more of what we do now; and doing new things.

Each of these categories of value has the potential to be very significant. We make no attempt to quantify the last two, as it would be difficult (if not impossible) to do so.

Doing things more efficiently we have attempted to quantify. Based on 80% coverage, if 50% of broadband users saved 3% of their time, time savings worth £0.9bn per annum would be achieved (based on a value of leisure time used by government studies).

Note this is only an assumption, for indicative purposes. We would be interested in seeing any evidence that could refine this value, such as more detailed research on the activities consumers do online and how long they spend doing them.

The largest categories of wider economic value were: resilience, adaptability and policy options; and spill-over and virtual agglomeration. Again, these were not quantified as this was not appropriate, but we think these are likely to be significant in value.

The substitution possibilities created by next generation broadband would mean that the economy would be far more resilient and able to adapt to shocks, for example an oil price shock by providing alternative to travel. This also creates an additional range of options available to policy makers, which would be highly valuable in itself.

Virtual agglomeration had been identified as likely to be a big benefit from next generation broadband. Agglomeration refers to the productivity benefits of cities and clusters of activity – London, for example, has a higher productivity level than other areas in the UK. Through virtual agglomeration, next generation broadband could achieve some of the benefits of clusters and cities, and without some of the costs of cities such as congestion and pollution.

We also identified other categories of wider economic benefit, such as: an increase in competition in the economy; network effects as consumers and businesses both in the UK and across the world move to next generation broadband; reduced traffic congestion; the value created by the re-use of land and buildings no longer required by a next generation broadband network; reduced business travel; increased online backup; video distribution; and improved connectivity for SMEs. Some of these we did attempt to quantify, such as a reduction in business travel. For our estimations see section 5 of the report.

That’s the whistlestop tour of the categories of benefits we identified. We are keen to see these categories built on over time. We hope that as evidence emerges we will be able to more accurately populate this framework, to build up a more accurate quantitative picture of the benefit of next generation broadband.

Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG

So what are the benefits of next generation broadband? The economic story

Following the launch of our report ‘A Framework’, I thought it would be worth setting down a few pieces about the benefits highlighted in the report. I’ll start with a general view of the economic impact the report sets out, which although substantial in terms of benefits, may be difficult in practice for investors to capture.

First, a brief note on the methodology. We have taken a bottom-up approach, examining where in the economy specific value could possibly accrue, rather than making general estimations of the impact of next generation broadband on productivity or GDP. For more on this in the report, it is worth looking at the section on ‘pseudo costs and benefits’. We also broke down economic value in to two categories – private value that accrues to investors and consumers, and wider economic value.

The report sets out a wide variety of categories where value would accrue. Some of these benefits would be captured upon deployment; others would take time, require transformations and would accrue in the medium to long term. In addition some of these benefits may be impacted by various policy agendas – for example, the role for next generation broadband in reducing carbon emissions is potentially significant depending on whether a carbon tax was introduced that encouraged substitution for emission-intensive activities.

The report suggests that these benefits are potentially very large, and in the long term likely to be larger than the cost of deploying the network. Particularly, there is likely to be significant private value that will be captured by investors and consumers. This does not mean, however, that the business case is made, and in reality there are difficulties for investors in trying to capture this value.

The report highlights three key constraints on investors’ ability to capture private value. First, to the extent that next generation broadband is an experience good consumers may not be willing to pay a premium for the service until they have experienced it. Second, creating this value may require the transformation of value chains, which may take time and would be disruptive. Third, investors do not yet have accurate knowledge of how much consumers are willing to pay, meaning that there will be difficulty in setting the correct pricing structures in order to maximise how much of the value they are able to capture.

Generally, the report calls for further work that would address these and other uncertainties. Resolving these uncertainties will be key to creating a business case that is acceptable to investors. The BSG is continuing its work programme that will hopefully shed some light on these and other issues. We are keen that further evidence is put forward that can help illuminate these, and would be interested to see any evidence others have to this end.

The debate in Australia

Our recent report on the value of next generation broadband created a minor debate on itWire in Australia following a good blog article from Stuart Corner. The article captures the essence of our message on next generation broadband deployment from our recent research: it is more important to do this right than to do it now.

The size of the investment required to roll out next generation broadband in any country, the irreversibility of that investment, and the likely importance to that country’s economy and society of superfast broadband mean that the costs of getting it wrong could be significant, and that investment should occur at the most optimal time possible in order to maximise the benefits.

For the UK, our report suggests, the most optimal time is not necessarily now. There are a number of uncertainities for investors that create a large value in waiting, such as a lack of evidence of consumer willingness to pay and the current regulatory uncertainty. Over time, this value will reduce as evidence emerges and some of the uncertainties are resolved – we believe over the next 18 months or so.

Ultimately, we still believe the market is best placed to decide when and how investment in next generation broadband should be made. But this doesn’t mean we should be complacent. It is important that the work that is being done continues, including Ofcom’s work to provide regulatory certainty, the Caio review, and the work of the BSG, so that in 18 months’ time we really do have a clearer picture.

BSG launches new research

We’ve been absent from the blog for a few weeks as we’ve been finalising two new pieces of research that we believe moves the debate around next generation broadband in the UK forward, and putting on our 2008 Conference ‘Beyond Pipe Dreams?’. It’s been a busy time, but now that’s past we have a lot of issues to discuss.

First of all, the conference itself produced a lively and informed debate, with representatives from a wide variety of sectors and a range of speakers including Francesco Caio, head of the governemnt’s review of broadband.

The first of the two reports that we launched at the conference was ‘A Framework for Evaluating the Value of Next Generation Broadband’. This report examines the incremental economic and social value of next generation broadband over current broadband provision in the UK.

The second report was ‘Models for efficient and effective public sector intervention in next generation broadband access networks’. This report studies next generation broadband interventions across the world, and first generation interventions in the UK, to determine good practice for interventions in the UK.

These reports contain a lot of issues, which we will discuss in more detail in future blogs. For now, I can strongly recommend both reports if you are interested in the future of broadband in the UK.

A Framework for Evaluating the Value of Next Generation Broadband

Models for efficient and effective public-sector interventions in next-generation broadband access networks

by Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG

Manchester to go down the NGA route

Digital Region is not alone. Manchester City Council recently agreed to pursue a strategy of intervention to bring next generation broadband (in the form of a fibre to the home network) to Manchester, as part of a wider digital strategy for the city-region.

The plan will see the Oxford Road area used as a test-bed, covering 400 residential properties and 50 businesses, before a phased rollout elsewhere in the area, and was agreed by the Council’s Executive in March (you can read the report here). It aims to see ‘significant progress on implementation’ of the initial rollout phase during 2008/09.

On the heels on Digital Region, and with other authorities in the UK examining investment in NGA, Manchester is seeking to be a UK exemplar, providing knowledge and learned experience for other authorities in the UK. It is the lead authority in the DC10plus group on its ‘next generation connectivity’ workstream, and it hopes that its experiences will assist other UK authorities.

It is not just local authorities that can learn from Manchester and others, however, but broadband providers too. In the UK it is often cited that there is a lack of evidence of willingness to pay amongst consumers, and little or no evidence of applications and services that require the bandwidth provided by superfast broadband. Evidence will begin to emerge, however, from projects such as this.

Digital Region, the Ebbsfleet development, Manchester and others that are considering next generation broadband will provide valuable evidence for both public and private organisations, increasing the understanding of the market and allowing better-informed investment decisions.

The Byron Review: What now for regulation of Web 2.0?

“If our children were leaving the house, or going to a swimming pool or going to play in the street, we would take all the care possible about their safety – is there proper policing, is there proper safety? When a child goes on to the computer and on to the internet or on to a video game we should be thinking in the same way.”

This was the response from the Prime Minister to the review published last week by psychologist Tanya Byron, setting out recommendations to ensure that children and young people are protected from inappropriate and harmful material on the internet and in video games.

The publication of this landmark review reflects a growing policy emphasis on how web 2.0 should be effectively regulated.

Whilst no one would disagree with the importance of ensuring child protection on the web and on video games, there is a vocal concern from industry that regulation should not inhibit innovation. The new media industry is one of the UK’s most vibrant and is constantly developing new services – the principal users of which are, in many cases, children and young people.

Byron’s report is a considered and ambitious response to this important issue. Whilst many of last week’s headlines focused on her recommendation to extend the range of age classification for video games, a closer read of the 200+ page report (for those of you with the stamina) also reveals an important proposal on how regulation of web 2.0 should be driven forward.

Her solution to this quandary is the establishment of a UK Council on Child Internet Safety to develop a child internet safety strategy, that will cover both illegal and legal (though potentially harmful or inappropriate) activity.

Built on the structure of the existing Home Secretary’s Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet, the Council will be co-chaired by the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, involve other relevant government departments and be staffed by a cross-departmental secretariat. It will report directly to the Prime Minister.

The Council will also be supported by an expert advisory group and research sub-group and involve industry through working groups to deliver specific initiatives such as codes of practice.

Byron also strongly recommends that mechanisms should be established by the Council to effectively involve parents, children and young people.

At first glance, this seems like an eminently sensible solution. It draws the relevant stakeholders together and an over-arching strategy would arguably reduce confusion about the array of policy developments individual departments are currently pursuing in this area.

However, it is an ambitious task, and Byron’s recommended deadline of Spring 2009 for both the establishment of the Council and publication of the strategy is a challenging timescale.

It remains unclear at present who will drive forward the development of the strategy, and what regulatory issues it will cover. Elsewhere in her report, Byron throws down a gauntlet to industry to develop codes of practice on areas such as user generated content, improving access to parental control software and safe search features, and better regulation of online advertising.

This builds on the vast array of work the industry has already taken to set common standards on issues that are important to their consumer. One example of which is the Good Practice Principles on Audiovisual Content, which were facilitated by the Broadband Stakeholder group (

However, looking forward, could further regulatory proposals emerge under the strategy as a whole? Would this regulation be developed under a self or co regulatory model? And who will police and enforce these standards?

It has to be recognised that Byron has done an admiral job in pulling a wide array of issues together in her review. When it comes down to a more detailed look at how child internet safety will be regulated, however, there is still a very long road to travel.

By Pamela Learmonth, Policy Manager, BSG

PlusNet highlight ISP costs

While discussing something broadband related (strange how I keep talking about broadband with people), I was pointed in the direction of the PlusNet blog, which I hadn’t come across before.

This particular entry discussed the costs incurred by ISPs, depending on their choice of wholesale product, peering arrangements with other providers, costs incurred using transit providers and other factors.

I found this whole blog particularly fascinating, as it is not usual to find an ISP that is this open about their business (a number of their other entries are well worth a read, particularly this one on the impact of the iPlayer on their streaming traffic).

What the entry does highlight very well is the unsustainable nature of all-you-can-eat broadband price plans. Increasing traffic is increasing costs, and ISPs will need to raise revenues to cover these. It is likely that this will push ISPs towards bitcaps, and this could become an area of competition.

However broadband pricing develops, what is important is that the price of a service, and what that service provides, is clear and transparent for consumers. The Ofcom Consumer Panel and Ofcom are already looking at current marketing of broadband speeds. If competition moves away from speed to factors like bitcaps, it will still be important for consumers that the industry continues to work towards greater clarity, accuracy and transparency in its marketing.

Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG