The next broadband network may well go live one village at a time
The network that powers the next generation of broadband is going to be radically different from the one we currently have.
That is the view of Francesco Caio, one of the government's chief advisers on so-called next generation access and author of a major report into how the UK should roll out super-fast broadband.
He told delegates at the NextGen 08 conference in Manchester that the future would be a "patchwork" of community-based networks.
The challenge, he said, was to make sure that these networks all worked together.
"Building a network has traditionally been associated with big companies but there is going to be a major shift to local communities being the owners of their own networks and picking the service providers they want to go on it," he said.
In his report for the government he recommended that the Community Broadband Network, an umbrella organisation for some of the next-generation broadband projects already in existence in the UK, be appointed to establish standards to ensure such schemes worked together.
BT and Virgin Media are moving ahead with plans for superfast broadband that will deliver speeds of between 50Mbps (megabits per second) and 100Mbps.
But Virgin Media's network will only cover half of the homes in the country while BT has so far committed to an investment of £1.5bn in fibre, which would mean coverage for about 40% of the UK.
The Broadband Stakeholders' Group estimates that to lay a national network delivering fibre to every home would cost £29bn.
"If BT can only invest £1.5bn that is going to be a drop in the ocean," said Malcolm Corbett, the head of the Community Broadband Network.
"There will be plenty of space for others to do innovative things and there are a lot of people developing projects of their own - and their reasons vary," he said.
Currently there are around 15 grass-roots initiatives across the UK made up of local government and community groups all with the aim of building their own superfast broadband network, using a variety of technology including fibre and wireless.
Some are planning on laying their own fibre. Fibremoor, a community co-operative in Alston, Cumbria is aiming to make Alston one of the first villages in the UK to offer fibre to the home in 2009.
Others are based around local government efforts, such as a project in Manchester which will see a testbed network laid across the city that will benefit some of the poorest areas.
Rural networks could provide vital local information to the government
As well as being a place for operators such as BT to "play around" with next generation access, the pilot scheme has a more serious aim to reconnect some of Manchester's most deprived residents.
"Fifty per cent of our residents no longer have a landline and only one third use online services," said Dave Carter, the head of Manchester Digital Development Agency.
A fibre-based business district in Walsall was created when the local council became fed up with losing firms to its bigger neighbour Birmingham. It plans to spin off the network to benefit local residents.
In Kent, where 9,000 households still have no broadband access at all, the plan is to use an already well-established fibre network for schools to reach out to remote communities.
"I am a believer that communities can make a big difference," said Daniel Heery, who is heading up Fibremoor.
He plans to be entirely self-sufficient.
"We have someone living in the village who can lay the cable. It is not that difficult and the best thing is the community will own it rather than it going back into the pockets of Richard Branson or BT," he said.
For residents it will mean more than just faster speeds. It will deliver state-of-the-art public services, with the NHS and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) contributing funding.
The end result will mean at-home health monitoring for elderly or sick villagers, while local farmers will be able to input vital data about their sheep movements to the Defra website.
Antony Walker, head of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, is impressed by what is being done at a grassroot level.
BT may find itself more a contractor than network owner
"Once networks are deployed they are going to be there for a long time. The evidence is that, at least in the beginning, there will be patchwork of networks but there needs to be a significant level of co-ordination to ensue that, for consumers, it doesn't feel like a patchwork," Mr Walker said.
Roger Darlington, a member of Ofcom's consumer panel, believes such schemes are vital.
"If we rely on the private sector there will be quite substantial parts of the country that will never be reached by next-generation access," he said.
"Instead of the digital divide we have today we will have a digital chasm," he said.
BT admitted that it wasn't up to the job of fibring up the whole nation but called on local communities and government to work with it.
"We are not going to be everywhere anytime soon but local and regional governments and communities can help us decide what the right roll-out plans are for us over the coming years," said David Campbell, director of Next Generation Access at the BT broadband spin-off Openreach.
The development of community schemes could be an opportunity for BT, said Mr Caio. It may mean that, in some cases, BT is reduced to a contractor rather than the owner of networks, he said.
The government is expected to give its response to the Caio review of next generation broadband in the next few weeks.