It is usually in fiction that we are invited to suspend disbelief. Peter Pan asks the children dreaming of Neverland to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, so that Tinkerbell can get well again.
The final Digital Britain report also garnered some applause. However, not everybody clapped. The business of providing IT can and does play a role in all this via the Digital Britain framework, but in fact many channel players have been distinctly underwhelmed by the vision of Digital Britain so far.
Richard Heap, head of telecommunications at industry legal adviser BDO Stoy Hayward, said he firmly believed that the final report represented a
failure of imagination for future digital infrastructure.
“Despite being widely criticised in January for only committing to a broadband network speed of 2Mb/s by 2012, Lord Carter has gone ahead with plans to provide the UK with outdated technology at a speed akin to a snail’s pace,” said Heap.
He pointed out that South Korea has committed to making 1Gb/s available to all residents by 2012.
“Even Gordon Brown has gone on record saying that all households should be able to enjoy broadband speeds of 10Mb/s,” he said.
“Consider investing some of the £25m into innovation projects. One such example [government] could follow is Quintain Estates, which recently announced it has installed high-speed fibre-optics in a new development where residents can enjoy speeds of up to 100Mb/s.”
The plan to tax every phone line to the tune of £6 a year merely “adds insult to injury”. He added that an Ipsos MORI poll suggests that 43 per cent of people would not use broadband even if they had access.
Resources therefore should be allocated to boost broadband speeds, rather than try to guarantee slower speeds to everyone.
“What is needed is a wider education campaign highlighting the benefits of a connected UK and a more widespread network of connected terminals in public locations, such as schools, libraries, supermarkets, doctors’ surgeries and the like,” said Heap.
IDC has reported that the Asia-Pacific region particularly around Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur is on track to have some 1.5 million base stations supporting fibre at Ethernet speeds for High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) by 2012.
The analyst also expects that almost all urban WiMAX and Long Term Evolution (LTE) base stations will be connected to fibre by 2012. Non-line-of-sight (NLOS) microwave and fixed WiMAX will be providing up to 300Mb/s backhaul where fibre is not available.
IDC said the drivers in Asia are for enhanced coverage geared towards users requiring more bandwidth both up and downstream to end user devices. Yet network Oopex needs to be contained so that it does not outgrow traffic demand and average revenue per user (ARPU), meaning that different, scalable infrastructure is optimum for different locations.
Bill Rojas, research director at IDC, said: “Mobile operators need to provide scalable, high-bandwidth, Web 2.0 video and audio content, and internet access services for both mobile and fixed users in incremental CAPEX outlays.”
IDC believes that operators need to build scalable all-IP backhaul to support high-speed wireless services.
South Korea, a global leader in internet provision, had 70.7 per cent of its population connected by September 2008, according to the Korean Communication Commission.
Australia-based telecommunications analyst Paul Budde has reported that more than 90 per cent of Korean households are broadband subscribers.
“South Korea has one of the most vibrant and interesting telecommunications markets in the world. Supported by a visionary government, a creative and energetic private sector and a technology-savvy population, the Republic of Korea continues to push forward,” Budde wrote in a recent report.
This compares with the 56 per cent of UK households connected to broadband as of 2008, according to the UK Office of National Statistics.
In South Korea, very high-speed DSL (VDSL) is taking over from DSL, and Fibre
to the Home (FttH) services are developing. WiBro services are launching, and 3G
networks are upgrading to High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) and High Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA).
Yet little is said in the final Digital Britain report about mobile wireless which in Asia-Pacific has been a quick route to upgrading infrastructure or about symmetrical broadband provision, which would help businesses do a lot more online.
Too little too late
Scott Fletcher, chief executive officer of ANS Group, said the UK government goal of 2Mb/s for everyone by 2012 is just not good enough.
“Many people have 8Mb/s already,” he said. “We need some investment in infrastructure, and someone to make sure that the money from our service provider fees does that. But, unfortunately, it will be too slow.”
Incentives such as tax breaks are needed to encourage businesses and technology providers to upgrade and future-proof telecommunications infrastructure, which probably means FttH and speeds of at least 20Mb/s. And it is not much use targeting broadband to the home.
“If you spend £25,000 for local wireless to council estates, the bigger problem is getting the PCs to those people,” said Fletcher. “And there is nothing in the report for business.”
Government initiatives tend to take far too long to develop and implement by which time the rest of the world has moved on anyway, Fletcher added.
What should happen is that business should be enabled by government to develop and deploy next-generation infrastructure that will, in turn, enable UK businesses to profit and, in the process, float all boats.
“A lot of Digital Britain is just tacky PR. They are not actually doing anything,” said Fletcher. “It is a big report, but a lot of it is just waffle.”
Paul Vlissidis, technical director at IT security provider NCC Group, agreed that not enough was said about wireless provision and that Digital Britain is a Band-Aid approach that will not deliver for technology providers.
“If people are going to be selling services online, they need more,” he said. “I also feel there is very little in the report about security. With botnets these days, a lot of smaller businesses are being targeted for personal and financial information.”
Faster broadband speeds makes more customers at home and at work appealing to botnet herders. Yet Digital Britain seems only to gesture vaguely about cybercrime, he said, when the dangers are now so serious that customers may begin to shy away from doing more business online.
Ofcom’s role expansion for instance, into e-protection is welcomed, but the detail matters.
“There are a lot of missed opportunities in the report,” said Vlissidis. “For example, banks can do more about security online.”
Patrick Kingsley-Williams, managing director of reseller MWL, said the report offered too little too late. What holds back IT providers, for instance, as well as many customers, when it comes to broadband is uplink speeds.
“This is really restricting growth of Software as a Service (SaaS) and all the things you can provide in the cloud. So that is missing for me. And I am always against legislation I much prefer the market to drive down prices, and the framework does not seem to be there for that,” he said.
He also called for tax rebates, or similar, that would help people invest in new technology, recognising that times have been tough and that part of the survival strategy for many hinges on smart IT investments.
“Our customers are looking for ways to become more agile for example, calling into offices rather than going into the office to have meetings, and working from home,” said Kingsley-Williams.
“There is a whole host of applications, once a critical mass of users gets fast broadband access.
Simon Young, partner at Montpelier Chartered Accountants, said the report offered little or nothing for his SME customers, who are increasingly required to do more online, such as tax returns.
Many important-sounding phrases were used in the report, but it is often not clear exactly what is meant or what would actually be achieved as a result. Although the investment in IT is overdue and welcome, it is unclear how the additional £23m or so, for example, would be spent.
“The money will probably be spent on government bodies or brochures telling people how technology is important,” said Young. “Call me cynical. I think the £23m should have been offered as a grant to IT companies to connect their clients or whatever, perhaps offer free consultancy.”
The Digital Britain report will be a cornerstone in the Building Britain’s Future plan and draft legislative programme, which has the laudable, if ambitious, goal of building a stronger, fairer and more prosperous nation. But is it possible to really believe in it?
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