The Net At Breaking Point? Pt 2
All the players were there, including CEO of BT, Ben Verwaayen and his sidekick Ian Livingstone, CEO UK Cisco, board members from every ISP, the heads of the regional development agencies, etc.
The main thrust of the debate was:
The view from most players: "no".
Secondly: "Will it get to creaking point in the short term?"
The consensus: probably not. There is still much that can be done to the main backbone infrastructure to improve performance before the massive step change of fibre to the home is needed, a conclusion similar to the US study I mentioned in my previous post.
Thirdly: "Does the business model exist to invest the billions to upgrade the 'access infrastructure' (the last bit to the home) to fibre?"
Now, according to BT, almost certainly “no”.
This is a very different view to the US study. It claims there are very strong drivers and business models to upgrade.
One driver is that the current infrastructure will become increasingly unusable and people will want to upgrade: "Overall, transmitting over a saturated broadband link will feel a lot like the bad old days of dial-up. Long pauses between request and response, with some applications just too painful to bother with."
The second driver is all the new services that ultra high-speed broadband will enable.
BT’s kind of thinking is that there is no pressing need to encourage build out of the next generation access ("NGA") broadband network. But this approach could have a profound impact on the BBC, on the growth of really high-speed broadband in the UK, and its universal availability.
There is a good reason that ISPs would like to shape traffic: they can. The technology is now there at the ISPs' exchanges (the IP-DSLAMs) to charge extra for supplying a particular user with a particular file (e.g. an episode of EastEnders) from a particular source (e.g. BBC iPlayer).
But to me it seems like the flames over BBC iPlayer's impact on the current internet infrastructure are dying down - much as journalists would like to fan them. For example, in an article in the Observer, it was reported that "[t]he BBC's iPlayer could be hit by an industry-wide move to charge companies and consumers according to the size of files downloaded online", while a Mail on Sunday story last month accused the BBC of "hitching a free ride".
But in a firm reply to the Observer story, BT and Virgin were quick to distance themselves, BT's chief press officer saying: "BT is not complaining about or discussing the implications of iPlayer with the BBC".
ISPs seem to want to downplay the whole "internet at breaking point; content owners must pay” story.
But I may have been wrong about the motivation for their recent change of heart. I thought that most ISPs were firmly set against charging content owners to stop their pipes filling up. They were using the convincing logic that their subscribers would feel that the ISP has already charged once for this content to be delivered via the monthly broadband subscription fee.
But after yesterday’s meeting, I start to wonder if there was another motivation to claim the current internet was doing just fine. Because if it is doing fine, then the government and Ofcom have less reason to intervene and regulate the build out of the NGA (fibre to the home) network.
This would allow BT to build out its "21st Century network" at its own speed, where it wants, carrying whatever services it deems, to whomever it pleases.
I am not in favour of regulation where it is not needed. We do not need Ofcom to transplant TV regulation onto the internet (see Mark Thompson’s Liverpool speech about "TV without frontiers"). But I don’t want to see the broadband lead we achieved in the UK (after a very slow first few years ended by the eventual and decisive intervention against BT [Local Loop Unbundling]) be lost because we let the same situation of very conservative build-out arise all over again.
I believe the benefits of a truly high-speed broadband Britain will be enormous (and this means NGA speeds of 100Mb/s, not the 10-20Mb/s that the current infrastructure can support).
We are a creative knowledge economy: the creativity will explode as the bandwidth increases. I know we at the BBC are offering services based on the available bandwidth. Open the floodgates, and the content and applications will appear, followed closely by consumer take-up as evidenced already in Korea and China.
The US report cites: “[a]mong the trends driving this, the authors refer to growing use of Web 2.0 applications, the replacement of physical travel by virtualisation of face-to-face contact within friends and families, users switching from broadcast to IP-accessed versions of radio and television (especially the latter), and video-sharing”.
I’d add to this list of NGA drivers:
- exploitation of video archives
- production collaboration (from 2D TV footage to 3D architectural models)
- health monitoring (and remote procedures)
- security (including video child-care oversight)
- simultaneous in-home access to multiplayer gaming
- services to enable small-to-medium businesses to play with the big boys including telepresence
- reduction in carbon footprint and lower overheads from home working
- video rich social networks, and so on and so on.
My own worries were stated simply by the secretary of state: "the digital divide will be the new definition of the haves and have nots”.
Ofcom is currently consulting on its response to NGA. So, what should we be telling them?
Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology. Part 1 of this post is here.