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Last Updated: Monday, 3 December 2007, 08:00 GMT
Push for faster net 'premature'
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Fibre optic cable
Fibre will cost up to 15bn to roll out across the UK
The push for next-generation broadband could be premature, according to some senior industry figures.

Both regulator Ofcom and BT have expressed doubts about whether the time is ripe for rolling out what would be expensive fibre optic networks.

"We need significant evidence that such a network is required and I don't think it exists yet," said Peter Philips, Ofcom's head of strategy.

Network firms have also questioned if a faster net would make economic sense.

"The question is how to make money and I'm not sure the answer is good," said Justin Paul, a development manager at telecoms equipment firm Alcatel-Lucent.

World map graphic

There is also uncertainty over whether people would be willing to pay more for faster broadband.

Super-fast broadband capable of delivering speeds of up to 100Mbps (megabits per second) has worked its way up the political agenda in recent months.

Competitiveness minister Stephen Timms recently hosted a summit on the issue, while MPs recently held an eForum to debate the need for next-generation networks and regulator Ofcom has launched its own consultation.

Fibre networks capable of speeds of up to 100Mbps are already commonplace in Japan and South Korea and are starting to be rolled out in countries such as the US, France and Germany.

We are not facing large numbers of people today who are constrained by their bandwidth,
Peter McCarthy-Ward, BT

The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) kick-started the debate in the spring of this year with a major report looking at how and why Britain would need next-generation broadband network.

BSG chief executive Antony Walker said it was not yet time to panic.

"There is lots of competition and innovation in the broadband market and [it is not clear that] current bandwidth is a problem. We don't need to make any rash moves but the time is ripe for some collective thinking," he said.

You can shoot someone so much quicker at 50 megabits
Howard Watson, Virgin

Regulator Ofcom is also heavily involved in the debate and is aware that for any company to commit to a multi-billion pound investment in a new network it would require some assurances from the government that it would be able to recoup its money.

While acknowledging that a fibre network "could be one of the most fundamental changes to our communications infrastructure in decades," Peter Philips, head of strategy and market development at Ofcom, is not entirely convinced that it is ready to come out of the starting blocks just yet.

"We need significant evidence that such a network is required and I don't think it exists yet," he said.

"We have to ask ourselves what would be the disadvantage if your investment comes later than others. We would be able to learn from the experiences in other countries," he added.

Commercial incentive

Most industry watchers are aware that the obvious candidate for any network upgrade is the custodian of the current ADSL broadband network, BT.

House graphic

BT is planning to up the speeds of ADSL, with a new technology offering speeds of up to 24Mbps and The roll-out of so-called ADSL2+ will begin early next year and by 2011 all of BT telephone exchanges will have been upgraded.

It is also considering the business case of rolling out VDSL - a technology that offer fibre as far as the street cabinets. This would offer speeds of up to 50Mbps.

As far as fibre to the home goes - the real gold standard in the network world - BT has only committed to offering this technology (which offers speeds of up to 100Mbps) on new housing estates, such as Ebsfleet in Kent which will eventually serve thousands of homes.

"No-one would be more delighted if a commercial incentive emerged that enabled us to fibre the nation," said Peter McCarthy-Ward, BT's director of equivalence.

But he is not yet sure the demand is there.

"We are not facing large numbers of people today who are constrained by their bandwidth," he said.

Will gaming be one of key drivers for increased bandwidth?

Any commitment to a fibre network would need to be backed by reassurances from Ofcom that it would be able to recoup its investment, he said.

It may sometimes seem like Britain's best kept secret, but there is already a next-generation network serving just over half the population.

Virgin has pledged to upgrade its cable network - which reaches 52% of the population - to 50Mbps speeds by the end of 2008.

Speaking at a recent broadband conference, Virgin Media's chief technology officer Howard Watson admitted that an upgrade of cable would not "be on the same scale as what BT would have to do, but neither is it a trivial amount of money",

But, he said, the investment was crucial to Virgin's strategy going forward.

"We are shifting our position to one driven by broadband and increasing speed," he said.

Triallists at the pilot sites in Ashford, Dover and Folkestone are very happy with the service especially the ability it gives them to do fast downloads and access high-definition TV content, said Mr Watson.

"And gamers love it. You can shoot someone so much quicker at 50 megabits," he said.

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