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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 13:24 GMT
An expert's view on next-gen net
Fibre optic cables
Fibre will help to deliver super-fast broadband speeds
In December, BBC News website readers were asked to contribute to a debate on the future of fast broadband in the UK.

Antony Walker, chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group - one of the key bodies that will shape the future of broadband in the UK - gives his response.

It was really useful to see the views and responses on superfast broadband. Many of the comments reflected issues that the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) is currently working on. We have taken what we saw to be the key themes and have tried to address the various points raised.

ACCESS FOR ALL

Graphic showing house and wires

Although the UK is a world leader in terms of broadband accessibility, it is clear that there remains a small yet significant group who still can't access broadband from home.

As broadband becomes an ever more central part of people's daily lives, the frustration of living in a so-called broadband "not spot" is easy to imagine. Connecting these last remaining areas remains a key challenge and there is a real debate now about whether broadband should become a universal service in the same way that access to a phone line has been.

Looking forward, there is of course the worry that the next generation of super fast broadband services will only be available in urban areas.

This seems, at least at first, a likely scenario, as densely populated areas will be more attractive for commercial investment.

As such, serious thought needs to be given to ensure that, in the long term, next generation broadband does not cause a new and enduring digital divide.

ENSURING QUALITY OF SERVICE

Antony Walker, chief executive of Broadband Stakeholder Group
It is still not clear how strong demand will be for next generation broadband or how much consumers will be willing to pay for these services
Antony Walker, BSG

Many comments focused on the quality of service currently delivered by ISPs. A main gripe appears to be the difference between actual and advertised broadband speeds. Put simply, people want a reliable broadband service that does exactly what it says on the tin.

It is a reasonable expectation, but not one that is easy to deliver.

The nature of the underlying technology means that the speeds you experience at home will vary depending on time of day (whether you are using the network at peak times) and the distance between your home and your local telephone exchange.

This complexity presents a real marketing challenge, one that Ofcom and the industry is currently reviewing. However, consumers are clearly becoming more savvy about their broadband services and want broadband to be fast and reliable.

DO WE NEED SUPERFAST BROADBAND?

Map of the world

While headline speeds appear to be the clear priority, other problems people raised included the time it takes to upload information to the internet.

Today's networks were designed to be asymmetric (ie the download speeds are higher than the upload speeds) and didn't anticipate the extent to which peer-to-peer networks and other services would increase upload traffic.

The next generation of networks would address this issue providing much higher upload and download capacity.

Other commentators drew attention to that fact that much faster broadband services are now being offered in other countries and voiced concerns that Britain is being left behind.

The impact of broadband on our economic growth and international competitiveness is something that needs to be considered alongside the benefits that high-speed broadband can offer individuals.

This is a key issue and the BSG is conducting research that we hope to publish in the spring that should shed more light on the wider economic and social value of next generation broadband to the UK.

WHO WILL PAY?

This is the $64,000 (or perhaps more in fact) question.

Several people raised concerns about who is going to stump up the cash to pay for these new networks, and this remains the big uncertainty in how and when next generation broadband will be deployed in the UK.

Despite many signals that consumers value higher speeds, it is still not clear how strong demand will be for next generation broadband or how much consumers will be willing to pay for these services.

Uncertainty about demand and potential revenues is one reason why some remain sceptical about the business case for investing in next generation broadband.

However, there are signs for optimism.

BT has announced that it will deploy fibre-based technology to deliver broadband speeds of 100Mbps (megabits per second) to the new Ebbsfleet Valley community in Kent.

Virgin Media has also committed to making improvements to its network in order to offer broadband speeds of 50Mbps to 9m homes by beginning of next year.

These are early but significant steps, and could mark out the beginning of the road to a faster and more sophisticated broadband network for the UK.



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