The government’s broadband delivery programme has seen Geo Networks exit the process over economic and competitive concerns, and doubts expressed by Bath and North East Somerset Council.
The programme is meant to allocate and distribute £530m of funding to bring superfast broadband to the third of UK homes and businesses that will not be provided for by the broadband market and would otherwise miss out. But is it the best path to universal fast broadband networking for the UK?
Some of the focus is on the role of BT Openreach’s Physical Infrastructure Access product, which allows rival operators to deploy ultrafast fibre optic services through BT’s cable ducts and telegraph poles. No one questions that a lot can be done with fibre - but at what cost, and how long would it take? It reminds me of the local loop unbundling that took forever and seemed blocked at every turn.
Local authorities in the process of delivering broadband to their communities should be working from the outside in. In the current situation, rural communities in particular will remain at a disadvantage. Fibre deployments are not being planned to houses and farms; at best it is to the local school or similar. The communities themselves must find out how to get services from the local point of presence to their homes, or continue to rely on copper.
A wireless network, however, can be deployed quickly and much more affordably than fibre. It can also be used to connect the entire community rather than parts of it - so public funds would be used solely to connect people not online today.
Then, when everyone in an area has broadband access - and it is proven that demand is there - telcos will have a business case for funding superfast backbone fibre networks.
Fibre availability and access will always be a thorny issue. So first concentrate on evaluating alternatives such as wireless broadband and satellite to reach the more rural areas. There are thousands of examples around the world of regional ISPs using wireless networking for rural broadband. There is no reason to wait years for fibre and copper infrastructure to be upgraded, and in some cases laid, when a wireless network could do the job more quickly.
At the moment the process entails county councils, unitary authorities and local enterprise partnerships applying for a share of the money by developing a local broadband plan. Such a plan must outline how everyone in the area will access superfast broadband. Once a plan is in place, the funding is allocated and the work put out to tender. I believe the programme should do some of the groundwork itself, so councils do not need to.
The government must also encourage smaller providers to come forward with proposals. We all know that far too often the sheer administrative burden of bidding for projects deters would-be providers. The programme has focused on the framework approach, which means that only the major suppliers and telcos are likely to have the resources to participate.
Ian Walter is sales director at Alvarion
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