Broadband for all - an alternative vision - Communications Committee Contents

Broadband for all—an alternative vision

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.[1] 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 involved—and broadband affects most if not all industries—questions 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 broadband—though it is a matter for debate as to whether they are too tied to models inherited from the past—these are, at best, of marginal interest to most of the general public, and at worst entirely impenetrable.

6.  The starting point for UK policy must be historical. While the broadband infrastructures of other countries, like South Korea,[2] 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 network—the local access network—a 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

2   Q 128 (see paragraph 17) Back

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