Broadband for allan alternative
Chapter 1: Introduction
1. This report concerns the United Kingdom's
electronic communications infrastructure. It proceeds from a consideration
of current broadband policy, which focuses on broadband access,
to a vision of pervasive broadband connectivity as a key component
of national infrastructure.
2. This report tries to answer three questions:
· What are the Government's plans, and what
are their chances of success?
· Are those plans the right ones? Will they
bring about the broadband infrastructure the UK will need?
· Are there any alternative approaches which
might be better?
3. Broadband refers to "always-on"
access to the internet at a speed greater than dial-up modems
can provide. With it, a user is not compelled to dial up to their
Internet Service Provider (ISP) every time they want to browse
the web and can also make a telephone call or watch video content
simultaneously. Broadband access is usually described by its speed
or bandwidth. This is
the amount of data that can be transferred per second either to
the user (download) or from the user (upload). Speed is a factor
in, for example, how quickly pages from the internet can be viewed,
or large files, like films, downloaded.
4. For the Government, the potential gains of
enhanced broadband provision in economic and social terms, and
in the delivery of services, make broadband fundamentally important.
Similarly, for the industries involvedand broadband affects
most if not all industriesquestions arising from the roll-out
of broadband infrastructure are crucial; to an increasing extent,
their futures depend on this infrastructure and on the rules that
govern their access to it. Finally, for the majority of UK citizens,
broadband is becoming a domestic essential, similar in many ways
to other key utilities like water or electricity.
5. It is a shame, therefore, that the debates
over this vital infrastructure are conducted in terms which are
utterly mystifying for most of our fellow citizens. While the
telecoms industry and the Government are alive to the technical
and regulatory issues surrounding wider coverage of enhanced broadbandthough
it is a matter for debate as to whether they are too tied to models
inherited from the pastthese are, at best, of marginal
interest to most of the general public, and at worst entirely
6. The starting point for UK policy must be historical.
While the broadband infrastructures of other countries, like South
Korea, are often said
to be good examples for the UK to follow, these countries benefit
from something the UK cannot: being able to start virtually from
scratch. The UK has various legacy infrastructures which do not
reach some areas, overlap in others, and were built by companies
in previously unconnected sectors such as telecoms, transport,
energy and cable television. What is more, none of them was built
as a general purpose communications infrastructure.
7. The outlook, however, is far from desperate.
On the contrary, some of the companies involved are already investing
in extending the coverage of broadband and are accelerating the
available speeds. Some have suggested that gradual acceleration
is the wrong strategy; that a step change is required. Some evidence
has even argued that infrastructure is not the pressing issue;
that the Government should instead focus on getting more people
online in the first place. The great majority of the evidence
we have received, however, has supported the Government in doing
something about the UK's broadband infrastructure. Views have
simply diverged on what that should be.
8. At a basic level, the Government's plans are
straightforward: a subsidy is being provided to decrease barriers
to investment in areas of the UK where the commercial case for
constructing broadband infrastructure is weak. To understand these
plans beyond this basic level, it becomes necessary to grasp what
lies beyond the phone sockets in our walls at home and at work.
The infrastructure which traditionally carried voice signals through
those sockets and out across the country is a complex, articulated
hierarchy carrying information from our homes to a local access
network, through regional and metropolitan networks, and out to
large core networks which cross countries, continents and oceans,
passing various exchanges, distribution points and waystations
along the way. It is necessary to step back and take in the whole
of this map to realise that the Government have focused intervention
on a particular part of that networkthe local access networka
decision which, if one looks closely, entails a string of decisions
with impact on the future of the internet in the UK.
9. A whole variety of problems with the Government's
approach have been diagnosed and a number of solutions have been
presented. While some proposed solutions represent minor tweaks
to the plans already underway, others are wholesale departures
from the Government's strategy.
10. Given the fundamental importance of broadband
to millions of UK citizens, to UK industries and the wider economy,
we hope this report will offer a timely update on what is happening,
as well as a number of clear recommendations for how the Government
might do better.
11. We would like to thank everyone who gave evidence
to us, both at oral evidence sessions, which we held between March
and June, and in writing. We also wish to thank our Specialist
Adviser, Professor Michael Fourman from the University of
Edinburgh, whose expertise greatly benefited this inquiry, and
the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology for their assistance.
1 Following common usage, this report uses speed as
a synonym for bandwidth, the rate at which data flows measured
in bits per second. Back
Q 128 (see paragraph 17) Back