Superfast rollout needs a superfast environment

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

The recent publication of the House of Lords’ criticisms of and recommendations for the UK Government’s nationwide broadband plan throws up some interesting issues that, while doubtless need addressing, threaten to further engulf the rollout of high speed networks and/or broadband-for-all in an ever-deeper quagmire of endless debate at local, parliamentary and EU level. Meanwhile other territories JFDI, (and if you’re wondering what that means, it’s not this). In this case, that well-known acronym could also stand for Jersey For Digital Innovation, since the smaller island took the bigger decision and invested in an upgrade to fibre network using future-proofed Point-to-Point technology (PtP), a decision announced back in 2010, already being rolled-out and due for completion by 2015.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was not without its critics and debate is still ongoing around many of the issues now being thrown up by the Lords report and addressed by the EU – namely competition, (or lack of it), choice of technology and whether public money is best used to widen access and reduce cost to a greater percentage of the population or chase the fastest speeds but at costs to the end consumer that will almost certainly price the service out of the reach of most domestic users, (worth reading the comments to JT CEO Graeme Millar’s comments that it will be “cheap”).

Of course, arguments can be made on all sides and – as we’ve seen in Jersey – will continue long after decisions have been made and rollout commences. So the only question is really at what point do you make the decision? Do you endure endless debate, conflicting reports and consultations in order to try as best you can to line up your defences and rationalisations and cover your back against the inevitable backlash? Or do you accept the one thing that is absolutely obvious – that Something Needs To Be Done and you are going to have to ride out a storm of criticism regardless – and commit to the JFDI approach?

This is where a superfast environment is beneficial. Jersey, of course, is an independent state that is capable of making such decisions without having to first go through the same level of lengthy parliamentary reviews amidst the crowded UK legislative framework or conform absolutely to EU regulations, including the labyrinthine nightmare that is State Aid. This means that decisions to push ahead with support for a single operator, (JT), and a Gigabit Isles strategy – whilst contentious – are not illegal. It also means that things that need to happen can happen – and quickly.

The arguments for investment ….

While it may be difficult to justify the public spend for something that will primarily benefit private businesses and those with a greater need and deep enough pockets for superfast broadband in the immediate term, this is all about a long-term strategy. The public recoupment on its investment comes first in the form of supporting business growth and inward investment and – in the long-term – in the inevitable increase in demand for superfast broadband at consumer level and corresponding reduction in cost to more affordable levels. This is exactly the same path that the first wave of copper-based broadband took from its first inception and there is no reason to believe superfast will be any different.

The long-term nature of this return is where the choice of technology is key. In Jersey’s case, the investment in PtP means direct Fibre-to-the-Home with greater speeds and flexibility rather than the lower-cost infrastructure currently being rolled-out in the UK by BT that uses the more restricted GPON and VDSL.

The backlash against both JT and the States of Jersey was inevitable, both from rival service providers on competition and technology grounds and from the public – especially since the comparatively high and, for most, unaffordable costs have now been made clear by JT. But, given the alternative now being seen in the UK of endlessly debating and delaying such vital upgrades to what is increasingly being recognised as a fundamental utility – arguably every bit as important as water, gas and electricity – the States should be applauded for at least taking action.

The impact of taking big decisions and taking them quickly has a snowball effect. JT Labs and Digital Jersey have already been set up to help press home the competitive advantage that Jersey now enjoys and UK PLC will no doubt be observing with a keen eye, through all its inevitable growing pains and triumphs, (for there will be both in equal measure). But surely it’s not so much a question of whether or not this investment will pay off – both for JT and for the States – but how quickly.

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