Page last updated at 16:07 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 17:07 UK

Action urged on broadband future

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Moving to the next generation of broadband technology could deliver huge economic rewards, says a report.

The Broadband Stakeholder Group report said the benefit could be in excess of 16bn - the estimated cost of upgrading the UK's net infrastructure.

But those benefits should not tempt a rush to invest too quickly and boost speeds, it said.

It warned that some of the benefits will only materialise when high-speed networks have reached most UK homes.

High costs

The report looks at the likely impact of upgrading the UK's broadband infrastructure so it can handle speeds up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps).

Although some parts of the existing infrastructure can already deliver domestic net speeds of up to 24 Mbps it is widely accepted that a huge programme of work will be needed to get the whole country upgraded.

The report puts a price tag of 16bn on work to upgrade the networks to reach 80% of UK homes but said: "the long-term benefits to the UK associated with the wide-scale deployment could outweigh the cost of deployment".

Putting an exact figure on the benefits was difficult, said the report, but there were likely to be widespread economic and social advantages to having faster networks.

it matters more to do this right than to do it now
Antony Walker, Broadband Stakeholder Group
High speed broadband would give a boost to productivity as people did what they do now more quickly, by getting more out of existing applications, and by discovering many things that cannot be done at slower speeds.

Economic benefits would accrue as faster networks would allow more people to work from home and allow businesses to be more distributed.

A nation wired for high-speed broadband would also benefit socially. Lifelong learning programmes would be easier to support, flexible working would be more viable and social exclusion could be diminished.

Despite these benefits the report did not condone a rush to start the upgrading programme.

"It is tempting to jump in feet-first, but it matters more to do this right than to do it now," said Antony Walker, head of the Broadband Stakeholder Group.

Far better, he said, would be to wait and prepare the UK so companies and investors were in a better position to start the upgrade.

Currently, said Mr Walker, there was no compelling case for investing billions to lay down next generation networks.

For the near future, he said, improvements to existing technologies could soak up the demands of consumers for faster broadband but this should not be thought of as a permanent fix.

He cautioned that the UK could not wait too long to get on with the work.

If the upgrade programme did not start within three to five years there was a danger that the UK could lose out, he said.

During that time, he said, governments, telcos and net service could not simply "park" the issue. Instead decisions had to be taken about changes to the UK's regulatory regime and how to deploy the technology to make reasons for investing more compelling.

The report was prepared for a joint conference organised by the Broadband Stakeholder Group and Ofcom's Consumer Panel that will debate ways to get the UK started on its next generation broadband programme.

"It is imperative that we face the challenges of delivering a social dividend by looking at ways of delivering next generation access to all corners of the UK, alongside making the economic case for commercial roll out," said Anna Bradley, chair of the Ofcom Consumer Panel.

Setting a target of reaching 80% of the UK population with next generation broadband risked making digital divisions far greater, said Ms Bradley.

"We have a choice," said Ms Bradley. "Let's make the right one for all consumers and citizens."

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