Claire Milne, Visiting Senior Fellow in the LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, discusses the newly published report “Costs and Benefits of Superfast Broadband in the UK.” Claire wrote the report along with Robert Milne of Antelope Consulting and LSE researcher Paolo Dini.
Written in two parts, the report first looks at Current plans and prospects for superfast broadband then moves into a longer-term perspective on An interdisciplinary view of superfast broadband, community currencies and smart solutions.
Convergys commissioned the report in the hopes that it would “stimulate open and constructive debate among the main stakeholders about the balance between the costs, the business case, and the societal benefits of superfast broadband” in the UK context. We therefore took a long hard look at the plentiful and often confusing literature on this subject.
The report highlights how modest public funding for broadband is compared with that for transport or energy, leading to the assessment of a £1 billion shortfall for superfast broadband deployment. Yet funding for broadband infrastructure in turn hugely outweighs money available for getting non-users online. The recently launched Go-On-UK initiative, building on the work of RaceOnline2012, is, in its own words, “a radical new cross-sector partnership that has set itself an extraordinary challenge: to bring the benefits of the internet to every individual and every organisation in every community across the UK”. Government apparently supports the initiative, but not, so far, with funding. Could this be the most productive use yet for public broadband funds?
At the root of the debate surrounding government’s broadband plan is the issue of how much bandwidth the country will actually need in order to achieve economic and social objectives. Two very different positions are argued here, well illustrated in evidence submitted to the House of Lords Enquiry on Superfast Broadband. For example, Dr Peter Cochrane, formerly BT’s Chief Technology Officer, argued that “internet access at a high speed is a sine qua non of success in the modern world…a strategic utility and an overriding economic requirement for the future well-being of this country”, with examples of future uses, including 3D printing as well as the more usual e-health and e-education, and concluding “I want to engineer for tomorrow with my sight on the future. There is a huge cost in getting this wrong. If we go fibre halfway, we will have to upgrade at some point. If we put 20 Mbps in, we will be re-engineering it within a couple of years”.
Many people, both industry insiders and outsiders, would agree with him, sharing a clear vision of the need for very high bandwidth to each home, typically 100Mbps or more. But Rob Kenny of consultancy Communications Chambers challenges this view, suggesting that the capacity of human beings to absorb information sets a fundamental limit, of maybe 30Mbps or so, on what the ordinary household is likely to be able to use. Kenny claims that much of the benefit we see from broadband can already be achieved with 2Mbps, that there are diminishing returns to investment in ever higher speeds, and that people are unwilling to pay much more for superfast services, even in Korea whose experience is often used to support the opposite viewpoint. He argues that “…uptake of basic broadband is far more important than availability of superfast” and that any government funding should first promote internet use by people who are not yet online.
These differing views on levels of need for broadband are reflected in differences on how best to fulfil the need. Cochrane thinks fibre to the home is the only sensible way forward and consequently has made sure that he and his village neighbours get this, through a DIY approach. Kenny thinks the much cheaper solution of fibre to the street cabinet, with the last lap over copper, will serve most people well enough for a long time. Both agree that for remote locations, wireless distribution will have an important part to play, though they differ on how remote you need to be for wireless to be the solution. For use on the move, and, according to some people, for reaching homes even in urban areas, more effective uses of wireless could be crucial – the Institution for Engineering and Technology puts this case in its submission to Jeremy Hunt’s open letter on the Communications Review.
Given these very different expert ideas of future needs, principles for policy seem remarkably consistent. Many voices call for more and better competition at the wholesale level, and more co-operative approaches to providing backbone infrastructure open to use by all comers. Everyone agrees on the vital importance of using spectrum well. Of course, commercial interests are bound to diverge on what all this means in practice. But nobody disagrees that everybody should have a chance to share the benefits of broadband internet. The latest ONS statistics show 8.2 million adults as still offline, with DDA-registered disabled people accounting for nearly half of these, being over three times more likely never to have used the internet than non-disabled people.
“Costs and Benefits of Superfast Broadband in the UK” was published by LSE Enterprise and produced through the Department of Media and Communications for Convergys Smart Revenue Solutions. Claire Milne can be contacted at email@example.com.