Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Meeting 2 Mbps universally

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This week’s Digital Britain White Paper committed, as expected, resources towards the achievement of an access speed of 2 Mbps for all broadband users throughout the UK, regardless of where they are based. This is a welcome commitment, albeit that there do remain questions as regards the detail and some reservations as to what it means in practice – see my other posts below (and not least in regards to contention rations dropping actual access rates in practice well below the headline ones).

One of those questions concerns the ‘platform’ (in less technical language – how) that commitment will be met. BT (and KCom, in Hull) provide fixed-line links to all homes on a universal basis – but some homes are poorly placed as regards the sorts of speeds being spoken about in Digital Britain (as they are too far from the nearest exchange); cable supplies an alternative source of fixed line communications, but to only half the homes in the country, with few prospects of building out much further; mobile base stations offer an alternative, although Digital Britain was somewhat critical as to whether mobile would provide significant inroads into the gaps in fixed-line provision before 2012, and potentially afterwards as well, depending on technical improvements and development decisions – see paragraphs 112ff). Overall, Digital Britain reported that some 11% of homes are currently unable to receive a speed of 2Mbps, so there is some way to go if the 2012 commitment is to be attained.

Apart from fixed and mobile ‘platforms’, the third possibility is via satellite, about which less is known. Digital Britain itself comments that market data on usage of satellite services is not widely collected at national level in the UK (paragraph 122). Eutelsat is one such operator, formerly owned by a consortium of European governments before being privatised in 2001. Taking commercial advantage of the debate afforded by Digital Britain, Eutelsat said this week that it was capable of meeting the 2 Mbps universal commitment for its subscribers already, with a free upgrade to 3.6 Mbps due as from 1 July, and that it was also investing in new satellite infrastructure capable of delivering speeds of up to 10 Mbps in 2010. It extended an invitation for further discussions as to the role of satellite service providers in meeting the commitment.

Without engaging in commercial puff on behalf of the company, the price of its basic 2 Mbps service does not seem exhorbitant – albeit clearly it is at a premium to the price of existing fixed-line service provision. At which point, the question of the universal service commitment does shift somewhat. How much further than 2 Mbps could access speeds actually be pushed on a universal basis via satellite? Are there any limitations of satellite providers in picking up all of the existing shortfall below 2 Mbps – for example, on a number of subscribers basis – and how should this be addressed? What, in other situations, will be the precise usage in practice of the public and other funds being committed to deliver universal service under the commitment? What about network security and reliability of satellite provision?

We understand the reluctance of the sponsors of Digital Britain to engage in debates around picking technologies, but if the technology already exists to deliver what public policy wants to achieve by 2012 and more, in terms of access  speeds, these are clear questions that need to be answered.

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Written by Calvin

19/06/2009 at 2:38 pm

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