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Tuesday, 15 July 2008

BT sticks a cautious toe in the water

Today's announcement (the original press release here) from BT that they will make a £1.5 billion investment in FTTx in the UK over the next 4 years will no doubt spark huge discussion and debate amongst the 'fiberarti'.

While I'm no great friend of BT (is anyone?) I can't help thinking that this is a hugely positive step. At last the incumbent has acted. Not only have they said that they are willing to work with regional and local players to look at a range of options for where they make the deployment, they have actually confirmed that they are not planning to focus solely on urban centres. which is clever as it will to some extent stop people like me from banging on about the rural digital divide.

Of course there is still along way to go, and I'm sure the devil will be in the detail of the agreements BT will seek to establish with said regional/local players (and how much matching investment those players will need to commit) in order for us to see some rural deployment.

On the downside - and it is a pretty big downside, they seem to be talking about Fibre to the Home for only a small proportion of their total planned rollout, which in itself is only planned to be 40% coverage. So, assuming we sit and wait for BT to do the job, by 2012 less than half of us will be able to get "40 - 60 Mbps" with a lucky 1 million homes offered real FTTH with 100 Mbps.

Why oh why do they persist with these half-baked slow solutions? Why, in a market where for some of the country at least, BT's fibre offer will be in direct competition with Virgin Media, which will be offering 50 Mbps or so via DOCSIS 3, does BT not blow the competition away by deploying true FTTH across the board, with 100 Mbps symmetric? they seem hell-bent on taking a perfectly good technology and watering it down to the point where the benefits for the consumer are merely 'good enough' rather than astounding. Yes it's about cost, yes it's about sweating the asset, but it's also about the arrogance of the incumbent exemplified by the quote from a BT spokesperson in a recent story about their equally diluted rollout in Ebbsfeet" when they said of the 20 Mbps expected permance of the Ebbsfeet deployment that it was "Higher in fact than anyone currently needs".

40% coverage? So the remaining 60% of us are left twiddling our thumbs with whatever copper based bodge will have been cobbled together by then.

Let's hope this will act as a spur to all those RDAs and local authorities that have yet to develop clear policy on the issue, and that some real constructive dialogue begins about how the remaining 60% of the country can get access. 2012 is not a long way off in the scheme of things, and the arguments about the digital divide are compelling in that local economies that are not connected will quickly suffer from a leaching away of jobs and investment towards those places that have fibre access.

For me this adds new urgency to the campaign for community owned fibre networks. A truly sustainable and responsive business model that offers tons of added value and lower costs for consumers has got to be the preferred option.

Benoit Felten is as ever ahead of the game with his post here that cuts through to some of the core issues.

You can also see Ofcom's response here, and the BSG's statement on the news here.

Let the discussion flow...

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