By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News
In early July BT announced that it was going to invest £1.5bn in fibre optic cables, bringing access to faster broadband to up to 10 million UK homes.
Fibre doesn't have to be expensive
But there will be large swathes of the country untouched by super-fast broadband and, for some, the answer is a more DIY, community-based approach to fibre.
Fibre might be some way off being rolled out on a national scale in the UK but individual community projects promise to have networks up and running, possibly by the end of 2008.
The community-based approach to net connectivity is nothing new. While BT prevaricated about how far it was going to roll out broadband at the beginning of the millennium, local communities took the bull by the horns and rolled out their own - often powered by wi-fi.
Impatient for speed
One of the first of these was CyberMoor, a co-operative which brought wireless broadband to remote parts of Cumbria.
Now the head of the project, Daniel Heery, is looking at how to bring fibre to Alston in Cumbria.
Regulator Ofcom has questioned whether the UK needs super-fast broadband and what applications will drive such networks.
Mr Heery thinks there is a huge market in e-health and e-learning projects, providing remote patient care and streaming lessons to kids.
"I think people are impatient for more speed and are fed up of hearing from the big companies that we can't do it," he said.
"For example it costs £500 per night to keep someone in hospital so tele-medicine has great cost-saving benefits."
The telemedicine project, which is run in conjunction with the local health authority, aims to use video links to aid nurses in the diagnosis of minor injuries, as well as provide set-top boxes which will allow people to book GP appointments and arrange repeat prescriptions via their TVs, and equipment that will enable users to have their chronic diseases monitored from home.
Wide-scale fibre projects involve either a huge amount of road-digging in order to lay the cables or a deal with a utility company to use existing pipes.
But the logistics of a DIY fibre network are relatively straightforward, according to Mr Heery.
The basic engineering will be put out to tender while another co-operative has been set up in conjunction with the Community Broadband Network to negotiate with content companies such as Sky.
For Malcolm Corbett, who heads up the Community Broadband Network (CBN), the decision to tackle the next-generation of broadband at grassroots level is obvious.
"While BT has been sitting on its hands the public sector is going to start experimenting," he said.
The CBN is working with about 10 local authorities around the UK, including Walsall, Nottingham and Manchester, to bring super-fast broadband to a diverse range of communities.
"It represents about 20% of the UK population," he said.
"We want to show that alternative approaches to the issue of next-generation broadband can work. And the hope is that they will prove the business case for others," he said.
Around Europe community-based fibre projects sit alongside larger rollouts.
Some, such as the OnsNet fibre project in Holland, are being used by CBN as benchmarks of what is possible.
The co-operatively owned fibre network links 8,000 homes in the Dutch town of Neunen and the founders of the profit-making project have recently been honoured by Queen Beatrix.
The rollout of fibre is often talked about as being prohibitively expensive. It is estimated that to fibre the entire nation would cost in the region of £15bn.
For Mr Corbett, fibre is actually pretty cheap - costing between £500 and £1,000 per household, according to CBN calculations.
"When you put it in those terms it sounds more doable. Fibre is guaranteed to last 24 years and the money could be repaid over a period of 15 years," he said.
What's more, he thinks the cost to consumers will be very attractive.
"There is no price premium and it can be as cheap as copper. If you offer people a more resilient and faster service for the same price they currently pay for broadband it starts to look very attractive," he said.
BT itself leveraged the power of grass root broadband rollouts when it increased the footprint of its first generation broadband network.
"BT was really innovative, asking communities and residents to pre-register and then prioritising the areas where the demand was greatest," said Ian Fogg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.
Fibre initiatives such as that being offered in Bournemouth and Dundee by fibre-through-the-sewers firm H2O is currently using the same technique of asking people to pre-register for the service in an effort to drum up interest.
While such community schemes could play a role in kick-starting next-generation access in the UK, they aren't without risk.
Many of the wireless broadband schemes that filled the gaps when broadband was not nationwide have fallen by the wayside now broadband is almost universally available and the same could happen to community-based fibre, thinks Mr Fogg.
"What happens to those who roll out fibre today when the ISPs start rolling out alternatives?" he asked.