Putting the fibre back into Britain
Published: 21 Mar 2007 16:10 GMTNetwork neutrality is a hot topic. With the internet now woven deeply into our lives, service providers should not have the ability to deny aspects of connectivity for commercial advantage. In general, the UK's regulators are relaxed about this; they say there's enough competition and freedom of choice to let the market control itself. That may largely be true, but there is one important exception — the link to consumer premises.
The last mile is a natural monopoly. There's no sense and no money in having to dig a new trench to change suppliers, and for much of the country there's no alternative to BT's cabling. Local loop unbundling acknowledges this and militates against the fact, but doesn't address the problem of upgrading the country to fibre.
That upgrade has to happen. The physics of copper are being stretched to the limit. Many people are now stuck at a handful of megabits per second, the highest speed they're ever likely to get. That's not good enough: digital health provided at home is just one essential part of our future that will demand universal high-speed access, to say nothing of the enhanced environment needed to develop internationally competitive commercial services.
Yet BT is cool about making fibre happen. Why should it provide its competitors with a super-fast pipe before it's ready to sell its own services? That thinking held back DSL and killed ISDN in the cradle — now the stakes are far higher.
The answer is deeply unfashionable: nationalisation. Instead of seeing basic connectivity as just another marketplace, we must look at it as we do roads. That means a state-funded organisation with one mission: universal gigabit access as a public service. That wouldn't be the death of the private ISP: far from it, as the business model of service provision over rented infrastructure is proven and allows for differentiation and competition. It would enhance the market by making it easier to change provider without the current regulatory mess. It would enforce network neutrality by default, while encouraging value-added services that can rely on a high-performance infrastructure.
As a country, we have much experience in combining public services with private finance. Much of it is painful; some positively corrupt: we can learn from that. The national infrastructure company will have to operate under conditions of unheralded openness and accountability, but it can and should be self-financing over time. If as a nation we can contemplate such projects as the 2012 Olympics, we should certainly consider ideas with similar budgets but much greater public good over a much longer period.
There's one final benefit. Should this come within a million miles of actually happening, BT will pull its socks up so fast it'll get ankle burns from the nylon. That's one fibre upgrade everyone would enjoy.