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UK upper house attacks broadband plan

01 августа 2012

The U.K. government's nationwide broadband plan risks excluding underserved communities due to its preoccupation with connection speeds instead of delivering universal access.

This is the conclusion drawn by a six-month inquiry published on Tuesday by the House of Lords Communications Committee, which gathered evidence from a range of stakeholders including network operators BT and Virgin, Internet service providers (ISPs), consumer advocacy groups, regulator Ofcom, and the government.

Essentially, the House of Lords, the U.K. parliament's upper house, recommends that the country would be best served by an open-access fibre network that would allow third-party service providers to build their own access networks using whatever technology they choose. This approach will ensure more even distribution of high-speed broadband access, it claims, whereas the government's current plan runs the risk of widening the digital divide even further.

"The conclusion we reached was that there were a number of respects [where] we thought that the government's overall vision wasn't quite fit for purpose," said Lord Inglewood, chairman of the committee, in a video uploaded to YouTube.

"Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset," he said in separate statement. "The government's strategy lacks just that: strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government's policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need... for the decades to come."

The government's Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) has set a target of providing at least a 2-Mbps connection to the whole population by 2015, with 90% of households able to receive superfast speeds, which the House of Lords committee defined as speeds of at least 30 Mbps.

To achieve this aim, DCMS and the unit tasked with meeting the government's targets – Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – are relying largely on private sector investment. However, BDUK has £530 million of public funds at its disposal to spur network deployment to the final third – the proportion of the population located in areas of the country where there is no clear business case for investing in broadband infrastructure. The funds have been divided up among local authorities for them to distribute via public tenders.

The House of Lords inquiry concluded that this target-led approach has had a detrimental effect on policy-making. Chief among the numerous alternative recommendations is Inglewood's proposal to put public emphasis and resources into rolling out a nationwide, open-access network of fibre optic hubs, leaving local access providers to invest in, and offer competing services over, the last mile.

"The government considered a number of models for delivering superfast and universal broadband," a DCMS spokesman told Total Telecom. "We believe that working with the private sector and local authorities is the best and most cost effective approach and we remain on track to deliver our broadband commitments."

However, this approach has encountered some serious problems. From a list of nine original participants, only two – BT and Fujitsu – qualified for BDUK's framework agreement, which it recommends local authorities use as a basis for their broadband procurement tenders. The European Commission is investigating whether this lack of sufficient competition infringes its rules governing state aid.

Indeed, the committee expressed concern over Fujitsu's withdrawal from two tenders - Wales in January and Cumbria earlier this month - leaving BT as the sole bidder for public funds.

"The danger that results from the lack of competitive pressure in the construction of the U.K.'s broadband infrastructure lies in the fact that the government can easily find itself in thrall to the commercial interests of private enterprise, and therefore unable to direct broadband infrastructure in the wider interests of the U.K.," said the committee.

Analysts' reactions to the inquiry's findings have been mixed. Generally they welcomed the call for less emphasis on connection speed, but they were unconvinced that the committee's vision represents a viable alternative.

"Ensuring equality of access seems a much more laudable goal than competing in a meaningless global contest based on Mbps alone," said Rob Gallagher, head of broadband and TV research at Informa Telecoms & Media.

"While average Internet usage in the U.K. is above those of a number of its peers, you can be sure it's much lower for those poorly served by broadband today," he said. "The U.K. government's current policy risks translating and even widening this gap to a next-generation world."

However, Gallagher said the model proposed on Tuesday may not be suitable for the U.K. market, pointing out that other countries that have adopted similar models and have seen mixed results.

"Nothing in the Lords' report and the U.K. today changes our view that the market will continue on its current lines, ultimately resulting in a next-generation infrastructure largely owned and operated by the former state-owned monopoly, BT," he concluded.

Matthew Howett, lead analyst of Ovum's regulatory practice, said many aspects of the inquiry's report are "simply odd".

"With nearly 50 recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met, it's likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream," he said.

The government is expected to respond to the inquiry in full in the next two months.

Источник: Total Telecom

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