Fujitsu and the final third
Hurrah - Fujitsu has banished the broadband blues from the final third. That, no doubt, will be the reaction in government to yesterday's news that the Japanese firm is planning a fast fibre network to serve five million homes which would otherwise be left in the broadband slow lane. But before we get too excited about this new dawn for British broadband, we need a little more information. Namely, what will it cost, where will it be available, and how much public money will it need?
So Fujitsu's plan to build its own network - in conjunction with Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Cisco - does two things. First, it provides the possibility of a third player in the fibre game, though one which will be closely allied with Virgin. So internet service providers (ISPs) without a fibre offering should be able to provide one via the Fujitsu network - if they don't like the look of BTs Openreach which will also be offering them a wholesale fibre deal. More competition, which sounds good.
Secondly, five million homes in rural Britain now have a real chance of getting fast broadband - and even, according to Fujitsu, having a better deal than is available in the towns. The company says that by delivering fibre direct to homes, rather than to pavement cabinets as BT mostly does, it can promise speeds of up to 1Gbps. Cue mutterings from BT about why on earth anyone should want those speeds - but for rural campaigners whose battle-cry has been "final third first" this sounds like very good news.
And Fujitsu says it's helping to push the UK up the global broadband league, and we need to be more ambitious about the technology we use. The UK is 27th in the OECD broadband rankings, Andy Stevenson of Fujitsu told me. You need 1Gbps from day one.
So to the questions - first of all, what will it cost to build, and then to buy? When the debate about next generation broadband was raging a few years ago, some huge figures were bandied around for the cost of bringing fibre to the whole of Britain - something in the region of 28 billion. Now Fujitsu is talking of building its network for two billion, which seems a bargain.
The company is getting access to BTs infrastructure - its ducts and poles - and that means there may not have to be too much expensive digging up of roads. Nevertheless, questions are being asked about how the sums add up. BT put out a pointed statement calling for more clarity and behind the scenes is frankly disbelieving: if we can not see the business case for this, how can they, asked one insider. We don't understand how they're getting it to this cost unless they're going to charge rural customers a lot more.
Still, its in BTs interest to be sceptical about the arrival of what could be a powerful new competitor - and the telecoms giant did spend many years saying fast fibre broadband was not really needed and not affordable, before deciding that the investment case did in fact add up.
But it's important to remember that this new network won't reach all of the final third - and we are not at all clear exactly where the five million homes to be offered this fast lane to the future will be. That all depends, says Fujitsu, on where the £530m set aside by the government for rural broadband projects is allocated.
That money, set aside from the TV licence fee, is crucial to the building of this network - work won't start without it, and Fujitsu is clearly hoping to get the lion's share of the cash. The company thinks the government would rather deal with one big provider operating nationally than dozens of small local projects - and judging by the enthusiastic reaction of the broadband minister Ed Vaizey to yesterdays announcement, it looks as though that's right.
So Fujitsu has gone a long way to providing an answer for the rural broadband campaigners, the government, the ISPs wanting a competitive fibre wholesaler - just about everyone except BT. All we need now is a bit more detail on how it all adds up.