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July 16, 2008

High–Speed Broadband coming to Britain from BT

High-Speed Broadband coming to Britain from BT


Yesterday BT announced one of the most significant moves of its history and one of fundamental importance to the future of UK PLC which is its willingness to invest in Hi-speed broadband networks. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this announcement as a hi-speed network is crucial for maintaining parity in the global marketplace. In ten years time any country which does not have the majority of its population accessing these networks will be severely diadvantaged for advanced economies will be highly dependent upon these networks.

The Current Situation

Only a few months ago I was reporting on the problems of taking the next step in the development of the UK as an important hub within the developing networked society. This centered around the issue that Britain currently lacked and had no plans for a high-speed broadband network. From a media and general economic perspective having a network like this is the essential next infrastructural step to keep UK PLC at the front of the pack. In a few years time countries that do not have a hi-speed broadband network will be economic laggards. From the perspective of the domestic consumer the introduction of high-speed broadband will enable households to download streamed moving images at High Definition (HD) levels of quality driving large flatscreens. This means that games, films, TV style programmes can al be accessed through computers and if necessary stored on domestic servers etc. Increasingly business is depending on the use of files such as these as well. Internal corporate communications and external marketing of moving images will be able to be downloaded from company servers. Imagine how useful that would be for travel companies or estate agents. Viewing the hotel you want to stay in or a house you are interested in viewing would be great for prospective clients and could cut down on work from the companies. From the perspective of media students who will be looking for media work there is likely to be lots more of this in the business sector in the future.

This Financial Times technology report gives the current realistic situation for UK download speeds which are currently slower than German & France! This FT report on the BT announcement has a useful video embedded.

BT to pump £1.5bn into broadband

Britian's future has just changed for the better with the announcement made yesterday from BT that they will invest around £1.5 billion into high-speed broadband networks:

The plans would bring 40% of homes in reach of an ultra-fast service by 2012. BT is also planning to put fibre-optic cable into about 1 million homes, making the service even faster for those customers. (BBC story 15 / 07/08)

The domestic bait is the promise of a fantastically diverse entertainments / work from home system:

The group's plans should enable homes to run so-called "multiple bandwidth-hungry applications" which would enable some family members to watch high definition movies while others were gaming or working on complex graphics projects. (ibid)

There is one major obstacle in the way and that is the current regulatory environment which is discouraging BT from investing in a system like this. To install it into homes would be an immensly expensive operation and BT currently has to provide a universal service down copper wires which can't carry much information compared with optic-fibre cables. Unless BT is allowed to charge realistic rates on its investment then of course it isn't going to do it:

A spokesman for the firm said BT hoped to discuss updating its current universal service obligation with the watchdog.Under current rules BT must provide a copper connection to all homes, however, the firm says this is out of date and unnecessary for updated services based on a fibre-optic connection.BT's rival Virgin Media already uses fibre-optic cables, which are faster than BT's copper lines, although the final connection to the home user is done with traditional coaxial cable. (ibid)

Digital Divide or Cultural Citizenship?

Of course different charging structures for different services will raise complaints from many quarters that universal equality of service will not be available with poorer families not being able to afford the high-speed services. This again opens up the dangers of a 'digital divide'. No government is going to be able to justify higher taxes to subsidise BT in installing entertainment lines to domestic properties. Rory Cellan Jones' blog offers some useful comments on some of the costings involved however we need to think bigger than this at the levels of regulation and what we demand and need to be active citizens in a digital future.

At this stage perhaps we need to reinvent the notion of public service 'broadcasting' into a notion of public service media access based upon the central concept of cultural citizenship. This would help the concept fit the digital age as currently the very term 'broadcasting' is rapidly becoming an anachronism.  Arguably there is a case for the so-called annual TV licence fee to be increased by say £10 pa with that amount ring-fenced for the ongoing installation of hi-speed optic fibre cables into domestic properties. This money would go to BT on the understanding that universal access was developed within a certain timeframe. This would ensure that in say fifteen years time there wasn't a huge inequality in terms of access for bad access will undoubtedly be educationally disadvantageous for the worst off.

Educational Infrastructure and Networked Society Futures

These likely developments also raises the issue of ensuring that educational institutions are guaranteed the highest possible quality links. Currently the exponential development of the world wide web in developing data heavy content means that many schools and colleges which at one time had connection speeds which were more than adequate are now lagging. The ever increasing need of students and staff to utilise YouTube and similar sites is giving IT  managers headaches throughout the educational system. New media specifications at A level for example are also demanding that student work is available online for moderation putting even more strain on currently overloaded dystems. At the strategic level government needs to be preparing educational institutions for a high-speed broadband world, otherwise the educational system which should be providing tomorrow's leaders for a fully developed networked society will be lagging.

changing the Regulatory Structures

It is important that all MPs are familairised with sober rather than hyed up notions of what the networked society might look like. I'm highly sceptical of the notion of Media Studies 2.0 and an assumption that independent and individual contribitions to networked society are developing into anything serious in economic terms rather than  the creation of cultural and social networks /communities are likely to be thin rather than thick. Nevertheless Ofcom needs to be persuaded that the changes in regulations that BT requires are largely put into place however there needs to be the 'but' of universal access. BT can quite justifiably argue that it simply isn't economic to deliver this. It is responsible to its shareholders many of which are pension funds with ordinary peple's money invested. It is safe to make the presumption that nationalisation and public subsidy isn't going to be the path taken therefore the licence fee linked to notions of cultural citizenship seems the best way forward. I notice that Ofcom already has a Citizenship and Convergence consultation paper published. It is important that readers start to interact with these initiatives as the future of digital citizenship within a networked society is a high-stakes issue.


Times business online16th July 2008

Times business online 15th July 2008

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