The Digital Britain divide

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The final Digital Britain report, released on June 16, has read much like the interim report that was out earlier this year, but with a few surprises that have spurred a divide in opinion across the telecoms industry.

The report has been hailed by the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Ben Bradshaw as the solution to “accelerate Britain’s recovery from the biggest economic shock the world has seen since the Second World War,” with a primary focus to bridge the ‘digital divide’ in broadband speeds across the country.

The report develops a framework to implement next generation networks fit for high speed broadband delivery, deploying broadband to regions which currently have no access. It also outlines, vaguely, further spectrum allocation for mobile networks to boost coverage and speed, as well as more power for regulator Ofcom. But not all industry commentators are convinced the report will be the key to the UK’s future technological development.

The Government’s “universal broadband commitment” remains, to provide universal broadband speeds of at least 2Mbps to all UK residents by 2012, and high speed broadband on the cards through the development of next generation broadband networks.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said: “Every business will have access to fast broadband and the report makes it possible for this to happen in the quickest time. Britain will be the broadband capital, Britain will make the investment that is necessary and every citizen in Britain will benefit from the fast connections.”

Industry representatives appear to disagree that this decision is as revolutionary as Brown, and report author Stephen Carter (who will leave his post next month) make out as the proposed broadband speeds will be too slow by the time “universal broadband” is implemented.

Trefor Davies, chief technology offer at service provider Timico, believes the decision to roll out a country-wide broadband network is a positive move, but that the proposed speed is three generations behind current capabilities.

Says Davies: “It’s a better idea than not having any broadband at all. My biggest concern is that I had 2Mbps internet speed seven years ago. The technology is great if you haven’t got it but doesn’t bridge the ‘digital divide’.

“People today can get 8Mbps or even up to 24 and 50 Mbps soon, so 2Mbps is three generations behind.”

BroadbandChoices.co.uk product director Michael Phillips and Richard Heap, head of telecoms at BDO Stoy Hayward agree, saying that the Government’s plan to install just 2Mbps is far behind the standard available in other countries.

Phillips goes as far as saying: “A 2Mbps commitment is a pretty underwhelming aspiration given the rest of Europe already experiences over 6Mbps as an average.”

However, he says the Government’s pledge to make 2Mbps broadband available to the whole UK population by 2012 is a “tall order” that requires a “massive coordinated effort”.

Heap adds: “Despite being widely criticised in January for only committing to a broadband network speed of 2Mbps by 2012, Lord Carter has gone ahead with plans to provide Britain with outdated technology at a speed akin to a snail’s pace.

“This is even more frustrating when other countries, such as South Korea, are committing to universal speeds of up to 1Gbps by 2012, which is 500 times faster. Even Gordon Brown has gone on record saying that all households should be able to enjoy broadband speeds of 10Mbps.”

Head of communication regulation for KPMG David Thomas also agrees, but believes the lack of speed available to the entire nation is a result of limited Government funding caused by the recession. He says: “Residential consumers, SMEs and teleworkers are likely to be disappointed by the lack of ambition for universal broadband speeds of only 2Mbps.

“This is in stark contrast to the radical plans announced in Australia to spend £21 billion on building high speed broadband networks, funded jointly by Government and industry.

“However this low target is not surprising, given the lack of available Government funding due to the current economic environment and the industry view that customers will be unwilling to pay much more for broadband.”

Full report available in Mobile News issue 442 (June 29, 2009).

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