Carter report: missed opportunity and muddled thinking on UK broadband

Posted by Peter Cochrane on February 2, 2009

Voice and Data Services,, 2 February 2009

Lord Carter's interim review on Digital Britain is not a bad report for the MPs and people who are clueless about the digital economy. As for the rest of us, it fails to tell us anything we haven't understood for a long time, and worse, it doesn't offer a grain of hope for the future. It seems to be a collection of outdated and outmoded thoughts and muddled thinking that fails to seize the essentials and present an aspirational UK vision, writes Peter Cochrane, former chief technologist at BT.

Where is a consideration of Web 2.0, which is already upon us?
Where is a consideration of Web 3.0, which really will transform everything?
Where is the realisation that asymmetric and heavily contended 2mbps services over copper networks are not remotely close to broadband?

Where is the understanding that recognises that broadcasting and the nature of content generation and supply is transformed by high-speed fixed and mobile networks?

Where is the realisation that digital rights management (DRM) is visibly dying, and that new business models and services are emerging to transform all sectors of the digital industry?

Sad to say, this report is about old and backward thinking. It fails to take into account what we already know and understand from the leaders and from our own leading-edge industries, and that they themselves are as much mired by today's lack of bandwidth as UK travellers are by an inadequate infrastructure. In fact, the proposed future of this report will see us metaphorically sat in traffic jams instead of speeding ahead.

Specifically, where is the comparison with, or aspiration to join, the world leaders in Japan, Korea, China and Scandinavia? For example, Japan and Korea have a 100mbps basic service for home and office that is by law uncontended. That is, you get 100mbps up and down, which means video conferencing really works, and so does IPTV, and video downloading of modern sized content, and games, and interactive services. This is not to mention that this standard is to be upgraded to 1,000mbps in the next phase.

If the proposals in this report are realised it will not place the UK in the first league, but where Korea and Japan some 10 years ago. So by 2012 the UK will have slid back even further back from where it is today. Our citizens will not be participating and competing in the vibrant digital economy - they will be relegated to being spectators.

It is sad to reflect that the Thatcher government was prevented from rolling out fibre to the home in the early 1990s, and that the UK mobile operators were later hit by a £22bn 3G licence scam by Labour.

If only we could get ministers and their administrations to see and understand what is required to help the UK as a nation move forwards.

In the interim we have seen one study group, commission and report after another all display a fundamental lack of understanding. A case in point are the proposals for the new UK Council for Child Internet Safety to report directly to the prime minister. The prime minister! Why? And yet another body to manage the DRM situation. And how about competing infrastructures - now that's clever - let's waste even more resources!

Let's just think what we could be doing. The UK has more optical fibre in the ground per capita than any other nation, and most of it is either unlit or so underused it is hard to believe. We also have more unused radio spectrum devoted to the military than most nations. This could be freed up for civil use or shared. About 85% of the population live within 1km of an optical fibre. So bandwidth and reach we have in abundance, and this is positively compounded by the fact that we are geographically a compact nation.

Another hidden resource are the generous duct tracts that span the UK. Get the old copper cables out and you certainly don't have to dig up roads, and especially if you use a combination of overhead fibre or wireless drops for the last 50m to 200m. So no big civil engineering bills either.

New installation, ownership, business models and modes of operation are also a great opportunity.