4G ‘Can Help Britain Achieve Its Broadband Aspirations’
The mobile industry can fix BDUK mistakes, say attendees of Westminster eForum conference
This morning, mobile industry representatives expressed their willingness to aid the government in meeting newly-announced broadband targets with the help of 4G, at a Westminster eForum conference in London.
The event brought together MPs, researchers and business representatives, to discuss the progress of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project, and the objective of having “the fastest broadband in Europe” by 2015.
The government seems to think that fibre is the best way to get Britain connected, with £530 million funding for rural broadband, and £150 million more for “super-connected cities”. Yet the private sector is clearly more excited about the possibilities provided by 4G LTE networks.
Two sides of the coin
Broadband investment has become a key part of the UK government’s plans to boost growth and have Britain exit the recession intact. In the words of Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for innovation, science and digital infrastructure, when it comes to the broadband policy, “everyone is a stakeholder”.
Onwurah, who spent 23 years in telecoms industry, explained that superfast broadband is a unique infrastructure investment. Unlike roads or pipes, it provides an incredible rate of return to the economy, she argued, and investing in broadband is investing in innovation: it yields new products, processes and skills.
However, Onwurah also warned that “the potential for innovation will not be fully realised until everyone is online.” And unfortunately, that’s something the market cannot deliver.
That is why BDUK was created – to connect the “not-spots” and rural areas to the “information superhighway”. Lately, the focus of the agency seems to have shifted from extending coverage to increasing speed. CEO of BDUK Robert Sullivan defended his work, saying that the ultimate goal for Britain was to become the leader in several metrics, such as broadband take-up, price and healthy competition, not just speed.
Rural Broadband programme is the oldest and longest-running BDUK initiative. It is to divide £530 million of public funds into 45 projects, either based on a government framework or developed by local authorities themselves. The programme is facing one last hurdle – it needs to receive a single ‘state aid’ clearance from the European Commission to avoid having to get individual clearances for each of the 45 projects.
The government is also trying to create “super-connected cities”. It will give away £150 million of taxpayers’ money as part of this: £10 million each to ten major UK cities, and £50 million to 27 smaller urban centres.
The third initiative is a mobile infrastructure project – a £150 million investment into voice services in parts of UK that are not currently covered by mobile operators.
Finally, there’s the Rural Community Broadband Fund – a £20 million initiative jointly financed by BDUK and Defra, designed to extend coverage to the previously unconnected 10 percent of the UK population.
While it’s true that fibre broadband provides superior speeds, this solution is not as popular as the government might think. Nicholas James, CEO of UK Broadband, has warned that the only way UK can meet the government’s rural ambitions is if it uses a combination of FTTC and “fixed wireless” – a beefed-up version of 4G LTE. These connections provide great capacity in a targeted area, are easy to deploy and can be a great interim solution, but have a big appetite for spectrum.
Another speaker interested in spectrum was Aleyne Johnson, senior government affairs manager for Vodafone UK. Johnson agreed that LTE could help Britain achieve its broadband targets, and called on the government to reduce the barriers for infrastructure deployment (something newly appointed culture secretary Maria Miller is already doing). Yet he expressed his disappointment at EE obtaining the rights to be the first operator to offer LTE in the UK.
Alistair Davidson, telecoms director at mobile infrastructure provider Arquiva, was yet another LTE advocate, calling wireless “the optimal solution for the last five percent”.
When BDUK started its work in 2010, 4G wireless was a new, untested technology. Meanwhile, fibre appeared to be a little like traditional copper cables, albeit faster and more expensive. Two years on, and several LTE trials later, the government still maintains that fibre is the best solution, while mobile operators and customers living too far from the local exchange are actively seeking other solutions.
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