Broadband for all - an alternative vision - Communications Committee Contents

Chapter 5: Our alternative vision: final considerations

237.  In this report, we have made a number of recommendations which the Government and industry could act on immediately. As we have suggested throughout, their implementation could have a profound effect on the roll-out of broadband infrastructure in the short term—and have the effect of bringing the current approach closer to the alternative vision we outlined in Chapter 3. As noted, however, it has been useful within the context of this report to continue to refer to our vision and the open access fibre-optic hub idea which it informs, as an entirely alternative proposal. We also hope that doing so might lend our proposal greater clarity in its role as stimulus to future policy makers in this area. We are aware, for example, that a further £300 million may be available for investment in broadband infrastructure in the new Parliament up to 2017.[120]

238.  In presenting a more in depth picture of our alternative proposal, we do not pretend that what follows is comprehensive. It simply proposes to give a clearer impression of what we have in mind and should answer some, if not all, of the questions which may naturally have arisen from the outline we have provided of our alternative approach so far. From that point, it will be for others, as they see fit, to elaborate further and to incorporate into their thinking as many of these ideas as may be useful.

An alternative direction for broadband policy

239.  To reiterate, our vision is of a robust and resilient national network linked primarily by optical connectivity, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community. This would allow diverse providers, large and small, to contribute to the reach and resilience of our national connectivity and allow all individuals to benefit from whichever services, including public ones, will run over it in time to come.

240.  To realise this vision, we believe a reorientation is required in Government policy away from the absolute edges of the network and towards that part of it which brings fibre-optic closer into communities. Conventionally this part of the network is referred to as the 'middle mile.' However, as fibre is laid deeper into the network, to terminate in open access fibre-optic hubs, it will be possible—desirable, even—for networks, to be extended on further from these points to still further outlying hubs, and so on. To build in the redundancy and resilience we described in Chapter 3, it will be equally desirable for these hubs themselves to become inter-connected. Over time, therefore, we envisage a network in which the boundaries between the middle mile and the local access network increasingly dissolve, and the entire system may take on characteristics, less of a rigid hierarchy, and more of a living organism—an ever growing and ever more interwoven web.

241.  In the first instance, what will be required is to establish open access fibre-optic hubs that reach deep into every community. The hubs themselves will need to be specified, and the detail of this, we leave to others. However, we can say now that they are likely to vary greatly. In some circumstances, cabinets will provide much of what is needed—accommodation for passive connections, splices and splitters. If the hubs serve masts, for example, these may need to be adjacent, or may be some distance away, but all that is needed from the cabinet is a fibre connection; power can be supplied separately. What will be needed in addition, however, is open access to any relevant links at the exchange as this will then be where the necessary active equipment is installed. In some parts of the country, it may even be more sensible to establish new hubs from scratch with space and power for active equipment themselves. These would then play a role more akin to an exchange, and would accordingly need to be specified differently. They would need to be reliably inter-connected and given the space required for the installation of active equipment, would inevitably be larger, certainly larger than a cabinet tends to, or even—in urban areas—can be. In these cases, therefore, public spaces such as schools and libraries may provide a sensible location, not least because they have the advantage of a presence in most communities.

242.  Clearly a more detailed specification of open access fibre-optic hubs would eventually be required. At this stage, however, our intention is only to provide a clearer impression of the alternative direction for broadband policy we have advocated throughout this report. As such, we reiterate that in fact, despite having set off in a different direction without—in our view—having asked proper questions about where policy should take the UK's broadband infrastructure, the Government's approach could to an extent be brought closer in line with ours by virtue of a number of measures at its and the regulator's disposal.

243.  Ofcom should consider employing its Article 12 powers to oblige infrastructure owners to provide open access to dark fibre at the level of the cabinet, and active and passive access, together with rights to install and collocate active equipment on relevant links at the level of the exchanges and other nodes.

244.  As discussed in Chapter 3, we note that there are indications that access to dark fibre has been suggested by the European Commission among a set of conditions for the umbrella state aid permission BDUK are seeking for projects operating within its Framework.

245.  We also noted in Chapter 3 that under the right conditions, we anticipate the emergence of a new industry of infrastructure providers in the final mile who will be able to respond to local demand and compete effectively with their national cousins to build out local access networks accordingly. We also suggested that this is not simply a vain hope, and that there are an increasing number of such businesses thriving in areas of the UK where open access to backhaul can be secured. Among these are, for example, WiSpire—a joint venture between the Diocese of Norwich and Freeclix, a local ISP—and the Tegola network in the Scottish Highlands. In both cases a significant degree of success has been achieved in bringing connectivity to rural or remote communities at reasonably low cost by using wireless technologies for the final drop. In Norwich, backhaul is provided by Freeclix, transmitting connectivity wirelessly to a mast on Norwich Cathedral, from where the signal is distributed further to masts on churches elsewhere in the Diocese, and then finally onto homes and businesses themselves. In the case of the Tegola network, Professor Peter Buneman FRS outlined a similar approach had been taken in the Scottish Highlands. As he put it to us: "The only technical obstacle to the development of more of these access networks is the lack of backhaul."[121]

246.  Additionally, as noted in chapter 4, we have made a firm recommendation to Ofcom to encourage, and consider mandating open industry-led standards, which among other things, would specify the systems interfaces between infrastructure and service providers. This would have a significant impact on the ability of prospective network owners to attract ISPs onto their networks as it would provide a single open standard that could be implemented by any infrastructure provider and eliminate the prohibitive administrative burden for an ISP of having to deal with a proliferating array of interfaces.

247.  A large ISP will still be reluctant to deal with, and rely on, a large number of small and disparate infrastructure providers. One way of resolving this issue lies in the virtual aggregation of networks into larger units. If an ISP interacts not with the network owner itself, but a management organisation acting as an intermediary between them, this would to a significant extent avert the problem. We would, therefore, urge the industry to work to ensure there is such an organisation, and that it is fit for purpose. We are aware, for example, that INCA, the Independent Networks Cooperative Association, may be able to act in this capacity.

248.  We urge the industry to work to ensure there is an organisation with the capacity to act as an intermediary between an array of separate network providers and larger-scale ISPs. We note that the existence and effectiveness of such an organisation would be vital to the success of an open access fibre-optic hub model.

Long-term considerations

249.  We note with interest that one effect of the open access fibre-optic hub idea that we are promoting may be to alter the conceptual framework for the final mile. Currently, most people's conception of broadband infrastructure derives from their conception of the telephone network or other utilities whose termination point is at the curtilage of the household, after which ownership of the network is taken over by the owner of the premises. An alternative way of thinking about the network might be that broadband roll-out has more in common with the railways: the traveller has to get him/herself to the station and once there the train takes the strain. In other words, the open access fibre-optic hub model makes it possible for individual property owners to build out the access network themselves, or at least have it built for them. In fact, this may be less radical than it sounds, given that, after all, the UK's general model of utility provision is not comprehensive in any case: property owners already need to supply their own hardware, interfaces, taps and so on. A similar idea was sketched by Francesco Caio:

"One alternative way of thinking of ownership structure is if the network is what I would define as the home with a tail, that is the household owns the last bit of fibre. Instead of having competition among suppliers to serve those homes, the ones you have somehow captured because services and the networks are together, you might think of a reverse model where you have the household auctioning the ability to connect with the backhaul and to the network, and then I, as a household, choose the services I want because I do not need the network provider to be the service provider."[122]

250.  The Government should consider, not least in light of the EU Commission's current consultation and the issues this raises concerning open access to dark fibre as a condition of State Aid, what the implications might be for broadband policy of a new 'house with a tail' model emerging in which the property owner becomes responsible for the construction and maintenance of their own final drop.

251.  This report began by noting that copper technology, first used for the 19th century telegraph, is no longer fit for purpose as the capacity of all but the shortest copper telephone connections is now being exceeded by demand for more data-intensive applications. Having considered a UK communications infrastructure beyond copper, it occurs to us that as the roll-out of fibre continues, capacity will increase, as will the appeal and number of services that rely on it. As such, a new digital divide may emerge between those with respectable and those with elite connectivity, separating those who can access what will in some cases be critical public services or public interest content from those who cannot. As a result, just as with digital switchover, a time may come when it is appropriate for the Government to mandate a form of Universal Service Obligation in the shape of a similar measure which might be called fibre switch over.

252.  We recommend that consideration should be given over time by the Government, Ofcom and the industry as to when and under what conditions fibre switchover would be appropriate and what implications it would have.

120   DCMS, Broadband delivery programme: Delivery model, September 2011. Available online: Back

121   Peter Buneman Back

122   Q 125 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012