BT has plenty of ideas to help meet the Digital Britain plans for a universal broadband service – but the government needs to work out what services users need, says BT’s corporate strategy director
However, only 65 percent of the country has broadband: “Up to ten million folk have yet to find a reason to buy broadband,” he says. The digital inclusion office has an interesting job persuading those people to take on broadband – and as the services on the Internet change, that will become even more complex, he says.
But what do users actually want?
“We must move to a service debate,” says Dr Whitley. “The customer is not interested in the speeds, only in the services they can use.”
The universal service has not defined the services required, so it’s not clear whether the whole country simply needs a 2Mbps service that is good enough to run BBC iPlayer, or one that is good enough for videoconferencing amongst relatives.
Broadband can only become a utility when it’s clear how it will be used – like electricity and gas – he says. “As the government gets into the procurement stage, that will become clear.”
Given that, BT and others will be applying a range of technologies for the rest of the country, including remedial technologies like BT’s I-plate accelerator, a new faceplate that improves the signal in the home, which BT is giving, essentially, for free.
After that, there’s a “long tail”, he says, upgrading very long copper loops in rural areas. “Sometimes they aren’t rural – they can be new housing developments, far away from the local exchange – so -called ‘not-enough-spots'”.
“There’s real scope to apply the extra money which govt is proposing,” he says, “and a whole raft of technology solutions.” The difficulty is that the government money proposed is not a lot when spread over the whole country.
BT’s OpenReach is working on inline repeaters, to improve broadband signals over long copper wires, and there are variations on the use of fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), normally a technology to deliver “super-fast” broadband to a street. “Not-enough-spots” could be served by a big cabinet to save the expense of a new exchange.
“For the hardest cases, the really long lines and disparate areas, it will be a matter of getting the maps and duct plans out, to optimise against particular houses,” he says. Wireless will have a role, and for the last one percent, “the country will have rely on things like satellites as a catch-all.”
But those two options technology options are where the government will have to be specific about what sort of 2Mbps service it wants people to have, and for what applications. “The Digital Britain report says there will be a role for wireless, but the degree of that role is critically linked to what the services are,” he says. Some technologies might give 2Mbps in a speed test, but not be able to sustain it, or suffer from latency.
Wireless will suffer particularly here, he warns.
Internet connections can be bonded together, to reach the last few, he says: “We already use that for Ethernet in the first mile, and there is some very interesting stuff being tried at [BT’s research centre] Adastral Park.” The service is already available commercially, but can be pretty expensive, he says.
Overall, if the government specifies what service users get properly, delivering it is well within the country’s grasp – and the change in people’s lives could be enormous, says Dr Whitley.
In Part 2 of this interview, Dr Whitley talks about the moves to create super-fast services, and the governments efforts to fund these with a broadband levy. , using the