Industry news

The broadband vision

As someone who spends a lot of his time discussing the importance and value of broadband, in all of its forms, to the economy and wider society I’m struck by how few manage to articulate a worthy vision for the impact of broadband.

A recent example of this was Ofcom’s timid attempt at a vision in its recent superfast broadband consultation (see section four). The Caio review made a good effort with broadband as an ‘essential digital utility’, but still didn’t quite capture it to my mind.

So it was pleasing to read, in an article in the Guardian early last week, that Stephen Carter is able to set out a vision superior to most efforts, referring to broadband as ‘commercially, socially, culturally, economically and politically transforming’.

This is about as good as I have heard, and hopefully bodes well for the future of Digital Britain.

Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG

Government to undertake Digital Britain Report

On Friday last week the government announced it would be undertaking a Digital Britain Report, led by the new minister for technology, communications and broadcasting Stephen Carter. This represents an opportunity for Government to tackle a range of issues in a coordinated, strategic way. Hopwever, doing so requires that the report is not a stock-taking exercise of ongoing issues, but a proactive plan of action that provides strong government direction.

The value of this report would be in bringing together the various activities going on in the area of convergence, across different departments, in a coordinated, strategic way. In doing so, government can provide a strong direction, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the UK’s digital infrastructure (and the surrounding policy and regulatory frameworks) is fit for a world-leading knowledge economy.

Commenting on the report, Peter Mandelson stated that ‘the digital economy will be central’ to Britain getting through the worst of the current crisis and preparing for the upturn; with this focus the report could be a valuable contribution to the health of the sector and the economic activity that it supports.

Looking at the issues identified for the report, there are already numerous initiatives either completed or underway that are tackling these. Indeed, one key issue for government is how this report interacts with these ongoing activities such as the Convergence Think Tank or the implementation of the Audio Visual Media Services Directive. A report that simply reviews these various policy debates will be of limited value.

The opportunity here is to bring together a range of ongoing issues that all relate to convergence but often sit across a number of government departments and lack an overall coordination. Addressing these at a strategic level, with government providing strong direction and leadership would be of benefit to the development of the converging industries.

It is rare that a new minister already has a command of their brief upon entering a new role, but in Stephen Carter this is exactly what has happened. With his knowledge and experience he should be able to hit the ground running, and use the Digital Britain report to drive government action, rather than simply set the scene for further reviews.

Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG

A busy month for next generation broadband

September has been a busy month in the world of next generation broadband. Government reviews, UK and EU regulatory consultations, not to mention our report on the cost of fibre-based next generation broadband, have certainly moved the debate on in the UK.

The month started with the BSG publishing its report ‘The costs of deploying fibre-based next generation broadband‘. This report used geographic and cost data specific to the UK, allowing us to model the cost of deployment across a variety of geotypes. The long and the short of this is that the report suggests that fibre to the cabinet will cost up to £5.1bn, and fibre to the home up to £28.8bn.

The total costs are interesting, but the purpose of the report was to breakdown the various cost components, to examine where the real costs lie. Unsurprisingly, this was in the civil infrastructure elements of the network – 42% of total costs for FTTC, and up to 80% of total costs for FTTH. Any steps that could be taken to reduce these costs would obviously help reduce this barrier to investment, and the report modelled how various actions, such as if higher duct re-use was possible, would impact the overall costs.

The report also clearly set out that there is a definite difference in the cost of deployment between urban, rural and remote areas of the UK. For fibre to the cabinet, for example, the cheapest 58% of households would cost £1.9bn to deploy to; the next 26% would cost £1.4bn, and the most expensive 16% would cost a further £1.8bn. Clearly, deploying beyond the first 60% of UK households will be a more challenging case for investors to make, which has a number of implications for government and the regulator.

This was closely followed by the launch of the final report of the Caio Review – ‘The Next Phase of Broadband UK: Action now for long term competitiveness‘. The Review suggested that, while we shouldn’t be panicking about a lack of NGA in the UK, the government could take actions to reduce the barriers to investment, and set out the need for leadership from the government and the regulator. A range of initiatives were recommended, including providing certainty for investors and reducing the costs of deployment, while increasing the competitive pressure on copper-based services, and benchmarking our performance against other countries while considering the ‘batstop’ remedies should the market fail to deliver NGA.

We welcomed these recommendations at the time, and look forward to hearing the government’s response to the Review. Certainly, our reports over the last 18 months have supported the conclusions and recommendations of the Review.

What followed was then followed by a flurry of regulatory activity. First, the European Commission set out its long-awaited draft Recommendation on the regulation of NGA. The Recommendation sets out how the Commission would like regulation to support investment and competition in next generation broadband, and makes for interesting reading for Ofcom and the operators, who will no doubt be submitting their views to the Commission before the 14 November deadline.

This was swiftly followed by Ofcom themselves publishing their latest consultation on the regulatory environment for NGA, ‘Delivering superfast broadband in the UK‘. The consultation discusses a range of issues and, although differing in depth of detail across the issues, certainly moves the debate on from its previous consultation last September. Positioning itself as a ‘framework for action’, the regulator will further progress these issues through a range of activities with stakeholders.

And, just to add to the fun, the Commission has also now begun its second periodic review of the Universal Service Directive, as well as launching an EU-wide broadband performance index.

Quite a lot to absorb for those of us who spend their days working on next generation broadband. So where has it left us? Well, the Caio Review has set out a number of options for government if it is serious about trying to reduce the costs of deployment. The government response will be interesting, and whether they are actually able to implement some of the suggested changes (such as to the way fibre is treated in the rating system) is up for debate. Caio’s recommendation that government and the regulator take a strong lead on NGA is one that we support, and are keen to see.

Our report has added further to the evidence base for policy making that we are committed to creating, to ensure appropriate policy is developed. It adds numbers to views that were likely already held, but also raises interesting questions, and the granularity of our figures should be of real use to those interested in local or regional broadband projects.

The Commission’s Recommendation, and Ofcom’s consultation, take us closer towards regulatory certainty than we were before, although a number of questions remain unanswered and this is unlikely to be the end of Ofcom’s process for creating the right regulatory framework. Certainly there could be a sense that every time you delve deeper into an issue, the list of questions a regulator needs to answer gets longer.

One issue worth noting is the change of view towards public sector projects. Sympathies certainly appear to have shifted within Ofcom, and possibly within BERR given the Review’s recommendations, since the DTI/Ofcom Best Practice Guide for Public Broadband Schemes was put out in 2007, and this is a welcome development.

This is one of many issues raised this month, however, and stakeholders will be watching with interest to see how these are played out in the coming months.

Home broadband improves GCSE results

According to the latest UK Internet Access Report from the Office of National Statistics those students with home broadband access are likely to do better in their GCSEs.

This is not really surprising. Broadband provides students with access to a wealth of resources that previously were simply unavailable. It can aid independent learning by encouraging independent research and discovery, and increase collaboration not just within schools, but across schools, countries and continents. At its most effective, it can completely transform the learning experience.

In 2003 the BSG published a report highlighting the opportunities that broadband presented to the education sector in the UK, and the barriers against wider take-up and use within the education system. It is good to see that broadband is having an effect, and we hope that this will continue as schools and teachers continue to understand how broadband can be utilised to enhance their students’ experiences.

There is still a long way to go, however. There is a big difference between those that do make effective use of broadband, and those that don’t, and particularly between students with access and students without. Progress is continuing in the right direction, with the Home Access To Technology programme within DCSF, and it is important that all concerned continue to work towards realising the full benefits that broadband access can offer education in the UK.

Peter Shearman, Policy Manager, BSG

One small step from BT, one giant leap from Virgin Media?

Virgin Media’s statement today that it could be offering broadband speeds of 200Mbps by 2012 certainly puts the cats amongst the pidgeons in the ever noisier debate surrounding next generation broadband.

Last month, BT announced that it would invest £1.5bn to bring next generation broadband to 10 million homes by 2012. The speeds that would be available were quoted in BT’s release as 40Mbps to 60 Mbps for those homes serviced by a Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) deployment. Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) could, it said, offer speeds up to 100Mbps.

Although BT stated that the exact split of FTTC and FTTP was still to be determined, it did state that FTTP would be primarily focused on new build sites, whilst FTTC would be more “prevalent” elsewhere.

However, even in the unlikely scenario that it pursued a 100% FTTP deployment, delivering speeds of 100Mbps, the 200Mbps speed quoted by Virgin Media today knocks that straight out of the water.

The potential next generation broadband speeds that can be delivered depend on the technology being used. I could take this opportunity to harp on about the different potential capabilities of BT’s network as oppposed to the cable network owned by Virgin. I could point to the fact that the technology Virgin Media is deploying to deliver faster speeds, DOCSIS 3.0, uses channel bonding technology to (as the name suggests) bond channels together to achieve these super-fast speeds.

Yet a discussion purely on the technical capabilities doesn’t tell the full story. Indeed focus on these headline speeds alone misses the main reason why these announcements are interesting to the next generation broadband debate as it stands now.

The point is, the fact that such announcements are being made is exciting in itself.

Next month we expect to see the publication of a range of documents that will move the debate forward – the independent review on next generation networks being led by Francesco Caio, Ofcom’s regulatory statement on next generation access and the European Commission’s recommendation on the regulatory framework for a next generation environment.

Operators and investors need clarity about the regulatory framework before they can really get going on deployment.

The signals from both BT and Virgin Media are significant and welcome.

They and the rest of the industry now need regulatory clarity to make next generation access in the UK a reality, and not just a pipe dream.

KPN to open its FTTH network to competitors

Rather under the radar this week, KPN, the Dutch incumbent, announced that it would be opening its FTTH networks to its competitors, in order to maximise the utilisation of their network.

In a deal with Reggefiber (a fibre network construction specialist) KPN will take a share in existing local FTTH projects and build on these as they deploy their FTTH network.

This is an interesting development in the EU context. The majority of incumbents within the EU are less than enthusiastic about opening up their networks having made such a large investment, but KPN have positioned this as an appropriate way to share the risk and ensure utilisation of the network. It moves KPN closer towards a civil utility-type of model, with many providers offering services over the network, owned by a single operator.

The local/community projects are also an interesting aspect of this development, as it shows that these can play an important role in demonstrating that these networks can be efficiently deployed – Reggefiber’s assets in the local networks they have built out are included in the joint venture with KPN.

KPN announcement

On Wednesday KPN, the Dutch incumbent, announced that they would be opening up their FTTH deployments to their competitors, in order to maximise utilisation of the network.

This announcement builds on KPN’s announcement in May that they were setting up a joint venture with Reggefiber, a fibre network construction specialist, to build out their FTTH networks. KPN will hold a minority 41% share of the JV, and both KPN and Reggefiber will add their existing FTTH assets to the venture.

Reggefiber were responsible for building the network in Nuenen, and own 5% of the Nuenen network along with other local networks.

This approach is very different to those of other European incumbents. It is also interesting to note the process by which they have arrived at this announcement, as it builds on a number of local projects that have already been deployed, and moves KPN towards a civil utility-type arrangement.

For more information on this announcement see http://uk.reuters.com/article/rbssTechMediaTelecomNews/idUKL2334840820080723

BT announce £1.5bn fibre deployment

BT today announced that they plan to spend £1.5bn to provide superfast broadband to around 10m homes by 2012. The BT press release can be found here.

The BSG has issued a statement welcoming this development, which can be found here.

BSG welcomes BT announcement on next generation broadband

The BSG welcomes today’s announcement from BT that it plans to invest £1.5 billion in making next generation broadband available to up to 10 million homes by 2012.

In April 2007, the BSG, – the UK’s leading independent advisory group on broadband – published its Pipe Dreams Report that stated that there was a two-year window to create the right environment for next generation broadband deployment in the UK.

Commenting on the announcement, Antony Walker, CEO of the BSG said “There has been a question mark hanging over the UK telecoms sector for the last 18 months about how we move to next generation broadband. Today’s announcement is by no means the whole answer, there are still questions about the regulatory framework and how we extend services to more rural areas, but it is a very significant step forward”.

BT’s announcement comes in response to increasing competition from cable and new mobile broadband services and growing demand for bandwidth from consumers. Walker described it as “a positive sign that the transition to next generation broadband can be market-led. The key question now will be whether Ofcom can move quickly to create a regulatory framework that both enables large-scale investment and ensures effective competition”.

The BSG believes that the move to next generation broadband will be at least as important as the move from narrowband to broadband. “It will bring about a revolution in the capability and quality of services and will enable the next big development of the internet. You could think of it as the catalyst for web 3.0”.

Full press release

Ofcom to survey duct infrastructure use for delivery of next generation broadband

In a speech to the IET yesterday, Ofcom CEO Ed Richards announced that Ofcom would undertake a sample survey of underground ducting infrastructure to understand its potential use for the rollout of next generation broadband in the UK.

Speaking at the reception, Mr Richards said,

“Super-fast broadband – next generation access and networks – are crucial to the UK’s future. These networks form part of the critical infrastructure of the country’s economy and will be central to the way we live our lives in the future.

I believe that super-fast next generation broadband will come to change our perception of communications radically; alongside mobile broadband, it will in time have a similar impact upon our society and economy as we have seen with first generation broadband. So we must prepare now.

Given the remarkable results from recent French surveys, we need to establish what the position is here and whether or not duct access has a role to play in the development of competitive next-generation access. So, in cooperation with operators we intend to undertake a sample survey of the existing duct network.

We are well aware that there are significant issues related to this in the broader telecoms market and that careful consideration will need to be given to these, alongside the results of the survey.

And, working with the Caio Review, we will also be asking whether there is scope to secure commercially viable access for fibre deployment through the primary infrastructure networks of other utilities such as water and energy. We must be sure we are not missing a big trick here. We know that a lot of the costs are in the civil engineering and this is civil engineering of a very similar kind.”

Full speech transcript – Ofcom CEO Ed Richards

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 (www.audiovisualcontent.org).

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