Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

BT hosts meeting on NGA

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BT hosted a meeting on NGA at the House of Commons this morning. Next generation access will deliver higher speed internet services via upgrades to the quality of the link between exchange buildings and the consumer which will, in the future, be based on glass fibre rather than the traditional copper pairs. Fibre to the cabinet, or the curb, (FTTC) is a first step in this process of progressing fibre much further down the line towards the consumer, and may ultimately deliver fibre as regards domestic consumers to the house (FTTH). This will facilitate even quicker speeds – FTTC still leaves the final link in the communications chain (i.e. from the house to the street cabinet) based on traditional copper pairs.

The meeting – which was private – heralded an announcement for MPs in constituences where the first 29 NGA roll-outs will be made. (For one BT’s original Press Releases on the issue, referrring to Scotland, see here.) Further announcements will be made in the next few months as regards the next 100 locations to be covered. This is definitely a positive step towards higher speed internet access for a wider number of people – the intention is to roll out NGA, now on an accelerated basis, as Ian Livingston commented on the occasion of the announcement of the preliminary full-year results for 2008/09, to more than 1m homes and businesses by spring 2010. The target of at least 40% of the population to be covered by 2012 remains in place, but this would seem to require a huge step up from the current plans although these have clearly been affected by the recession and the cost of capital, as well as BT’s current woes. The overcoming of both of these in good time would seem to be crucial for a quicker roll-out more in line with the original aims.

It is clear that, as far as BT is concerned, further roll-out depends on two things: the regulatory environment (which is still being worked on); and the level of demand. It is hard to conceive of how demand for higher speed internet access can be accurately measured, when that demand must necessarily exist only at a latent level given that consumers who do not have upgraded links can only imagine the services that they might get if they did. Still, no doubt BT has a way of measuring potential demand based on experience drawn from where upgraded links have been rolled out.

What was also noticeable from the meeting was an absence of plans for the remaining 60% of households. Here, it is natural from the perspective of national and social cohesiveness that there is a roll out beyond where the market would go as Connect has, in conjunction with the Communication Workers Union, previously argued to Ofcom. Nevertheless, this remains much more uncertain and, while opening up Virgin Media’s cable network to other ISPs might represent something of a solution since Virgin also has equivalent plans for high speed internet access, even this would remain only a partial one which would leave millions of households if not quite in the dark, metaphorically speaking, as regards their internet connections but certainly running only on candle power.

There is clearly a role here for the public sector (for which Connect has also consistently argued with Ofcom) in ensuring that market failures do not leave millions of people in less well-placed socio-economic areas behind their somewhat more fortunate peers.

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Written by Calvin

13/05/2009 at 6:00 pm

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