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UK must lead Europe with fast broadband

The internet is no longer a nice-to-have service. For most businesses it is a must-have utility, as essential to a successful operation as electricity, roads or water.

And as the internet is driving the adoption of practices such as mobile working and the deployment of mission-critical corporate applications in the cloud, the growing importance of ubiquitous, fast and reliable broadband access cannot be overstated.

Recognising this fact, the Finnish government recently decreed that access to broadband was a legal right for its citizens. The UK is moving along similar lines, albeit more slowly. Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for culture, who is in charge of the government’s policy for broadband, has outlined two principal aims. The first is to ensure that everyone in the country will have access to at least two megabits per second (Mbit/s) broadband by the end of 2012, and the second is to give the UK the “best superfast broadband network in Europe”.

Noble objectives, to be sure. About £50m has already been approved by HM Treasury and Hunt said up to £250m from the BBC licence fee would be used to improve broadband provision. The policy is focused on the fact that about two million homes and businesses – seven percent of the national total – are unable to currently get at least 2Mbit/s.

This may make it sound like the rollout of universal 2Mbit/s access is easily obtainable, but a study from broadband and communications services analyst Point Topic notes that these two million excluded premises are not in easily defined geographical areas that can be easily upgraded. The only way to reach these web have-nots is to upgrade whole areas – more than five million homes and businesses, or about 18 percent of premises in the UK.

According to Point Topic, the UK stands at a crossroads as decisions are made in the next few months between contributing parties including Ofcom, the Broadband Stakeholders Group, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Community Broadband Network.

The outcome of these machinations will be fundamental to the development of broadband in the UK over the next two decades. The government must address the specification, rollout and regulation of the UK’s next generation access (NGA) infrastructure.

It must also ensure that there is sufficient financial incentive for prospective service providers to commit to the infrastructure investment that will be required. But it also needs to prevent competing infrastructure companies creating a mess of disparate independent systems, which will hinder pan-UK deployment.

The report, Broadband UK: Action now for long-term competitiveness, advises the government that the first step should be to set out a framework for delivery of NGA. Then Whitehall should launch initiatives to expedite investments in NGA. It should also oversee the creation of a structured monitoring process and agree compulsory technical standards that operators must adopt. Finally, the report counsels investing in resources to define remedies to adopt “if the market fails” to deliver.

This last point is crucial. The government needs to take a leadership role as the stakes are so high. Global e-retail trade is expected to hit €550bn (£476.8bn) this year, with Europeans accounting for more than a third of this spend, according to some estimates. Apparently, about 30 percent of the world’s population is online, and about 85 percent buy goods and services on the internet.

If UK companies are to remain competitive they need to be equipped with the right
tools. We need the government to put our money where its mouth is and facilitate the creation of “the best superfast broadband network in Europe”.

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