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Do We Have The Backup?

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Bill Thompson Bill Thompson | 11:25 UK time, Thursday, 31 January 2008

Guest blogger Bill Thompson asks whether the BBC has a rôle in provision of broadband access

digital_divide_posts.pngAt the recent Oxford Media Convention, all the major broadcasters and newspapers were talking about their online plans, but it seemed to me that nobody was thinking seriously about how to ensure that everyone has access to the fast, affordable network connection they will need to download all this cool content.

When I first used the internet back in 1984, it was a publicly-funded computer network largely used by universities and government departments. I watched as it was privatised during the 1990s, and have seen commercial internet service providers create a market for network access that has brought us a long way from the slow, text-based network of my university days. Getting really fast broadband into every home seems beyond them, however - so perhaps it is time to go back to basics and consider public funding for tomorrow's network.

This article appears this week in Ariel, the BBC's in-house newspaper, but it's addressed at the whole media industry. It may even be of interest to new Culture Secretary Andy Burnham if he's looking for a high-profile policy to distinguish himself from his predecessor.

The BBC has big ideas, but does it have the backup?

Illustration by Chris DugganBBC THREE has just reinvented itself as a multiplatform channel, combining broadcast television, websites and other elements of its programmes (perhaps we should now call them "projects") into what controller Danny Cohen promises will be a "single, integrated offering".

The offering is based around what he calls a "new relationship between television and the internet", and it is clearly central to the BBC's long-term engagement with its audience as it seeks to fulfil its public purposes in the digital age. It is an admirable and well articulated vision, but one that only increases the BBC's dependence on the internet as the conduit for the web pages, video streams, emails and status updates that will build a relationship with the audience.

This dependence is rarely commented on, but it should worry anyone concerned with the long term viability of the BBC and other media organisations as we move from analogue to digital. The network may have coped with the launch of iPlayer, but large scale multimedia projects will only be supportable if there is massive investment in new high speed broadband services which today's internet providers may not be able or willing to deliver.

BT has warned that it may struggle

The few high profile efforts, like BT's proposal to put fibre-optic networks in a new town in Ebbsfleet or H2O's "broadband in a sewer" service, should not distract attention from the woeful inability of the existing systems to support high speed broadband and the unwillingness of the ISPs and telcos to make the necessary investment. Attempts to enhance the current patchwork of telephone and cable networks are stalling, and BT has already warned that it may struggle to pay for its own "next generation network". Virgin Media claims that it can re-engineer its existing network to offer connections up to 50 megabits per second, but this is only half the 100 megabits already on offer in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul.

night_garden.pngThis leaves the BBC and the rest of the media in danger of creating fabulous offerings that nobody can access, and no real control over the network on which its future depends. Although the corporation sold off its transmitter network back in 1997 it does at least have a contractual relationship with National Grid Wireless, and it has a legal right to the bandwidth used on analogue and digital tv and radio networks. Online it has only a deal with its own ISP, and it in turn relies on peering relationships and internet technical standards to ensure that data from the In The Night Garden website arrives safely at young Timmy's computer.

It's rather like News International deciding to move production of The Times to Wapping and arranging for the papers to be printed while hoping that a fleet of trucks will be on hand to transport them to the newsagents in the morning.

Whatever the risks, the move online is not going to be reversed and nor should it be. But it is certainly time to consider whether a private network can support the public purposes of the BBC and other organisations, and whether we need a new model to ensure that the whole of the population can benefit from the move online.

At the heart of the debate lies a fundamental question: is broadband a vital part of society's infrastructure that brings such general benefits that it should be paid for out of general taxation, or can it be left to the market to decide what is offered, using subsidy and regulation to attempt to guide it?

Part of a national infrastructure

The issue of public provision of network access is no longer taken seriously, just as public ownership of gas and electricity utilities is no longer considered, but that may have been because the network has only recently become a vital part of our national infrastructure.

In research and development there is a period before a new technology is well understood where companies work together to develop it. It's called "pre-competitive" research and there is a lot of state funding available to support and sustain it. Perhaps there is also a point where a technology becomes "post-competitive", after which arguments about subsidy and support are simply counter-productive because the damage done to the wider economy through the lack of a service or utility is far greater than any benefit that will accrue from allowing market forces to determine provision.

And perhaps this point has been reached with the internet. Getting bundles of fibre-optic cables into every building in the country is clearly the necessary outcome, so we need not leave private companies to argue over how it is done ­- we can just get the government to make it happen.

Once it's there we can, if the free market ideologues insist, create a market for bandwidth over the fibre, like the markets for electricity and gas, or we can remain sensible and offer unlimited access for a yearly tax, just as we offer unlimited road use to car owners.

wifi_wimax_hspa.pngThe result will not be a nationalised internet, but one where public provision corrects a market failure and offers a universal service. There will still be private services, especially for wireless networks, where wifi, WiMax, 3G and HSDPA are currently slugging it out for dominance.

The likelihood of the government deciding to invest public money in network infrastructure is of course low, and current EU competition regulations would leave any such move open to legal challenge, although how it can be legitimate for a government to build roads but not to lay fibre is a mystery to me, and one that deserves to be questioned.

Another argument against this approach is that public bodies cannot innovate, cannot deliver and cannot be trusted to spend money wisely. This is clearly an over broad generalisation: the BBC itself shows that a publicly funded body can lead in the technology field, as we see from the work done at Kingswood Warren. What counts is not ownership but the ability of those involved, and as long as the public internet project brings in the best engineers we will be able to design and build the next generation network.

Once it is in place the BBC and every other media player can take advantage of it to offer programming, interactive services and wholly new ways in which to engage, inform, educate and entertain.

Bill Thompson is a guest blogger; commentator and columnist at BBC Technology News. This is an edited version of an article from the BBC magazine Ariel. Illustration by Chris Duggan.


  1. At 04:59 PM on 31 Jan 2008, Mrs Jo Lane wrote:

    I have just become a "Silver Surfer" having acquired my computer about 3 months ago because I felt it was time to enter 21st century technology or be left behind. I am currently attending the Training Highways Course set up in this region for silver surfers especially which is an excellent course and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I attend classes through my Age Concern groups but we are constanting finding that BT internet connections to the BBC Home page are getting ever slower and slower. Our tutors tells us that there is nothing more they can do at the moment to speed up this service and I wonder, with more and more people installing computers, whether the service will become ever slower.
    Is it a fact that because we, as Silver Surfers are going to find this service falling short..

    Jo Lane

  2. At 07:21 PM on 31 Jan 2008, fg wrote:

    I don't understand why companies like the BBC, BT and Virgin Media work together to fund the replacement into 100mb cables. BT should be doing this, and virgin media are doing 50mb, but the BBC seems to be supporting Freeview, Freesat and DAB Digital Radio, why not do the same with 'Ultra-fast' broadband?

  3. At 06:36 PM on 01 Feb 2008, Rob Ollier wrote:

    The business case for blanket fibre-to-the-home deployment is unproven. Even if regulation was made more favourable and money was found, it would take years to roll-out such an infrastructure.
    The present UK ISP infrastructure is not optimised for streaming video delivery. The BBC must work more collaboratively with ISPs to build an intelligent internet infrastructure in the UK that can scale to provide mass-market video streaming. Placing video streamers deep inside ISP's networks (closer to the user) would provide huge cost savings to ISPs and the BBC while improving the consumer experience. This could be done relatively quickly and simply.

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