If there has been any early benefit for business users from the
UK Government's launch of the Digital Britain paper in 2009, it
has been the apparently stimulating effect it has had on the
enthusiasm of carriers for providing services over fibre. For
some of the larger players, BT in particular, this has been more
like a Frankenstein lightning bolt than a gentle prod. Where once
established networking companies talked of
‘providing high speed broadband if there is
sufficient demand', there are now more blanket coverage
This is odd as there really wasn't anything in the bill that
directly and significantly targeted business use, but the
reaction in the media and among smaller players across the
industry seems to have woken the apparently slumbering giants.
Delivering universal broadband now seems to have some urgency.
It is not only coverage where commitments are being made, but
also in service levels. More bandwidth is being offered, with
larger usage allowances and guaranteed speed or capacity. This is
vital as companies are reliant on their digital
connectivity—to drive commerce and communications, i.e. it
is not just broadband as a nice to have internet access
mechanism. This also changes the requirements for another aspect
of broadband performance—upload speed. The more a data
connection is used for general communications—telephony,
application sharing, conferencing, video—the greater the
need for symmetric bandwidth capacity, where download and upload
speeds are the same.
Fibre right to the premises can make it much easier to deliver
such performance. There is a fair amount of fibre already
present, from former cable companies, past and current network
operator investments and even social enterprises (not for profit,
but not public sector) extending the patchwork quilt into rural
areas. But a major problem with fibre is that its reach is not
nearly as widespread as copper. Unfortunately the largest element
of the cost of providing fibre is not the glass tube or the
clever ‘photonic hardware' that drives light
through it, but the cost of laying it in trenches underground.
Not all companies have the luxury of fibre passing by in the
street, however there are a number of alternative ways to extend
the reach of broadband. These range from point-to-point microwave
links, and improved range and bandwidth in wireless technologies
such as WiMAX to cellular network revisions such as Long Term
Evolution (LTE). There are even faster satellite data services
which have become relatively affordable due to the digitisation
of satellite communication systems, the ability to control and
deliver ‘beams' of capacity to the ground and
lower cost, mass produced ‘modems', thanks in
some part to the TV industry.
While many of the alternatives, especially wireless systems, will
deliver a certain level of capacity that probably meets or will
meet most of today's needs, they will quickly be outgrown, and
they themselves place greater demands on their
‘backhaul' infrastructure—which is
typically fibre. Ed Zander, at Sun Microsystems back in 1998
famously said "don't bet against bandwidth", meaning both the
appetite to consume, and need to supply more. These appetites and
needs show no signs of diminishing.
That appetite for capacity now comes from unexpected quarters.
Despite recent growth in the use of high definition video and
telepresence, there is no single bandwidth intensive, killer
application that hogs all available capacity. Quite a lot of the
new demand for network capacity is being driven by laptops with
3G ‘dongles' and devices like the Apple iPhone
that have changed mobile behavior, just as low cost ADSL
broadband changed domestic computer behaviour.
Almost all applications expect constant
network connectivity, and are typically ‘chatty'
in their use of it. So too do users
expect to be able to connect at all
times even for the slightest need that could be met without
connection (for example using Google to check spelling or look up
an acronym). These are not killer apps, but form a killer
cocktail of usage that individuals and organizations have come to
rely on. Demand to extend fast broadband connections has not come
from growth of a single predictable or orchestrated need, but a
vast cacophony of uses.
Finally telecoms providers and politicians are waking up to the
value of universal high speed connectivity, now they need to take
a more creative approach to weaving together the patchwork quilt.
This means introducing alternative investment models—not
phone taxes, but public/private combinations through social
enterprises and metropolitan partnerships.
This does not require off balance sheet style debt, like many PFI
projects, but a more social and public sector view of return on
investment, i.e. over a longer period and combining different
public sector budgets. It also means dealing more strategically
with precious wireless spectrum, instead of treating it simply as
an asset to tactically sell off to the highest bidders.
The washup washout of the digital bill hurried through at the end
of the last UK parliament, to the frustration of many in the
industry, shows that there is still some work to be done to
ensure the right steps are taken by government and regulators.
This is not just about supplying broadband capacity so that
individuals can consume more online media, but about turning the
patchwork broadband quilt into a ubiquitous commercial, social
and educational blanket—no longer information superhighway,
but information supermarket.