ATTENDEES at the Westminister Eforum called The Future of Broadband in the UK had a lot to talk about late this week, including next-generation broadband rollout issues, looming turf wars between competing broadband providers and a mounting furore over the Government's proposed Digital Economy Bill. Here's a round up of the biggest stories from the event.
The chief executive of the UK's Broadband Stakeholder Group warned that many challenges still need to be addressed if next-generation broadband deployment is to succeed.
Antony Walker told attendees that industry and government are "right to worry about" broadband deployment, and that future business innovation depends on ensuring that next-generation services are put in place in the coming years.
"We are facing some serious challenges in this country, and it is vital that ICT is able to meet these. Sustained economic growth, cutting government costs and lowering carbon emissions can all be stimulated with next-generation broadband access," he said.
"A national deployment of broadband could cost anywhere between £5 billion and £28 billion depending on whether fibre-to-the-cabinet or fibre-to-the-home networks are installed, and yet there are still many uncertainties over the business benefits of installing such a network."
Walker also detailed the differing road maps put forward by the Labour and Conservative parties, noting that Labour had made commitments to getting the 'final third' and those in rural areas connected with its Universal Service Commitment (USC) to provide everyone with access to a minimum speed of 2MB.
"The Labour government appears to be taking a nuts and bolts approach to the issue with its offer of direct investment and the proposed 50 pence tax levy on fixed phone lines," he said.
"The Conservatives, by contrast, seem to favour a 'market mechanisms' approach, allowing market forces to dictate the take up in areas where the need for high-speed broadband is required, and hope that demand will then exceed current expectations. As such they seem happy to sort the rural issue out later. "
Walker suggested that there were some key areas where the industry could move forward without needing to wait for the political situation to become clear, particularly with the USC.
"The USC appears to have caused very little contention and is something that should be driven forward. There still needs to be some clarification of what giving everyone 2MB connections would mean in reality, but it's something that should be being addressed now," he said.
However, some speakers at the event maintained that the lack of initial take up of the currently available super-fast broadband packages showed that demand is not as great as has been suggested.
Ian Fogg, a principal analyst with research company Forrester, explained that he had not noticed the same "pent up frustration with internet speeds" as there had been in the past when first-generation broadband emerged.
However, both Graham Lovelace from Lovelace Consulting and Jon James, executive director of broadband at Virgin Media, said that the growing demand for television accessed through broadband would drive the take up of top-level speeds in the coming years.
BT and Virgin Media Square Off
British Telecom (BT) defended its decision to spend £1.5 billion on fibre rollouts for next-generation broadband networks in areas already covered by Virgin Media.
Tim O'Sullivan, director of public affairs at BT, said he found it "surprising that anyone would suggest that spending £1.5 billion on new fibre in the current climate was 'disappointing'".
O'Sullivan was responding to comments from the floor, which described BT's proposed rollout as "defensive" and "disappointing" by trying to compete with Virgin Media's high-speed broadband.
"We are working to ensure that the UK is in a position of strength in the world of high-speed broadband with this commitment to financing the installation of next-generation access to broadband," he said.
Jon James, executive director of broadband at Virgin Media, argued that the people who should be disappointed with the proposed investment are BT's shareholders.
"We already offer high-speed broadband in the areas BT is proposing to move into, and have the capability to introduce speeds in excess of 50Mbps for the future as well," James said.
BT is planning to roll out the new fibre to 40 per cent of the population by 2012, around 10 million homes, and to achieve 75 per cent of this target by the spring of 2011.
However, O'Sullivan did admit that there is currently "no commercial case beyond 40 per cent", as the cost of rolling out fibre-to-the-home or fibre-to-the-cabinet rises steeply once levels of 60 or 70 per cent are considered.
Digital Economy Bill
Internet service provider TalkTalk renewed calls for the UK Government to reassess its Digital Economy Bill, arguing that widespread public outrage over the legislation is growing.
Andrew Heaney, executive director of strategy and regulation at TalkTalk, told the forum that the popularity of TalkTalk's Don't Disconnect Us petition on the government's number10.gov.uk web site proved his point.
The petition has received over 24,000 signatures since it was set up, making it the sixth most popular on the site.
"The amount of people who have signed the petition shows the strength of feeling that exists in all sectors on this Bill, from ISPs like ourselves to academics and notable celebrities like Stephen Fry who promoted the petition on his Twitter page," he said.
"The Bill is not something TalkTalk believes is a good thing, as it will increase costs to our customers and means we may have to unfairly remove customers from our service."
Heaney was referring to the controversial three-strikes disconnection policy proposed by Lord Mandelson.
Heaney also noted that he had heard rumours that the Section 17 amendment, which would give any future secretary of state the ability to change copyright law, was to be removed.
"It may well be the case that the Section 17 amendment was always something of a sacrificial lamb in the Bill, but even so it's important that it is removed. However, there are lots of other elements of the Bill that need to be considered for dropping too, not just Section 17," he said. µ