With overcoming the digital divide a priority for Britain, there is much tooting of the horn when ‘solutions’ are announced that will seemingly provide ubiquitous broadband. The most recent of these was around satellite internet broadband, with Avanti and its Hylas-1 Satellite and the Google-backed O3b Network, hyped with much excitement at the end of 2010. But the drawbacks to satellites providing adequate, future-proof and super-fast broadband have already been written about and once again the warning bells sound as the UK reverts back to fibre to address the challenge of bridging the digital divide. When super-fast broadband roll-outs in areas like the Shetland Islands Council and Cornwall are announced, it’s great to ‘toot the horn’, but they raise a basic question that needs to be addressed: are these examples of regional high profile projects replicable, given the costs involved and the implications of the Government’s Spending Review of 2010? Although many still see fibre as ‘king’, the cost implications of overcoming the digital divide with fibre are reputedly £5.1 billion to the curb and double/triple that to the home, in addition to the disruption caused by fibre trenching. The time has surely arrived to reassess options and look for viable alternatives.
It’s fair to say that no one feels comfortable with the issue of the digital divide in Britain. In an ideal world, everyone should benefit from access to super-fast broadband as the need to access information has quickly become a basic human need, essential for both economic growth and higher standards of living. It’s encouraging that new super-fast broadband projects are taking place, as with the Shetland Islands and Cornwall. Universal service coverage, reducing deployment costs and implementing the right business models are some of the all important buzz words flying around, but I feel slightly uncomfortable with some of these projects. The basic questions are still unanswered, such as how many of these regional projects can be implemented elsewhere in Britain? Is there funding available to benefit everyone affected by the digital divide or is this really a pipe-dream raising false hopes?
With regards to the Shetland Islands and Cornwall, these have now become privileged areas benefitting from funding by programmes like the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The fibre roll-out in Cornwall may be a priority to demonstrate it can work effectively but can the associated price tag realistically work across all remote areas? We need to be honest with ourselves. Fibre is not for everyone and in some remote incidences, it is not even appropriate. I don’t think anyone would argue that you can pull fibre through mountains, so what about those villages and towns located in those affected regions? There are other related issues, such as how to provide proper backhaul to guarantee coverage and speed in more remote areas. Furthermore, some initiatives such as SHDSL specifically targeted at rural and remote areas are only providing 1-2 Mbps at high installation costs. This is far from super-fast broadband.
We should look at alternative solutions such as high capacity superfast wireless that would enable service providers, whether mobile or convergent, to increase network capacity, provide high speed broadband and multimedia services at a fraction of the cost of deploying optical fibre in those hard to reach areas.
The time has come to challenge the fact that fibre is becoming the accepted norm, despite its associated issues, by asking questions such as what is required for the next generation high speed solution. Further investigations into the different options available to overcome the digital divide might make decision makers realise that the time is ripe to reassess and look for viable superfast broadband alternatives.