A few months ago there was the opportunity to discuss broadband issues on yet another online forum, the difference this one was hosted by the EU. The discussions were designed to be used to set the agenda for the Digital Assembly 2012 meeting in Brussels. The discussion in the High Speed Connections area focused on how fibre broadband can be deployed and the various studies showing the return on investment that this can generate.
The actual meeting took place over two days (21-22 June 2012) with each of the eight groups meeting to discuss their topic area, with around 100 people in each group. The second day was a full day spent sat in the European Parliament Hemicycle, where apparently visitor groups were shocked to find the room so full. I hope they don’t think we were all MEPs.
The full eight discussion groups covered the topics: Converged media platforms, High-speed connections, E-commerce, Social Media, Data, Cloud, Security and Innovation Entrepreneurs. The DA Assembly website discussion sections remain open and a twitter hash tag (#da12bb) will allow those who are only just finding out about the Assembly to review what was said and interact with the hundreds of participants.
There was a lot more activity in the twittersphere on the Thursday as on the Friday, over 800 people with multiple Wi-Fi devices each were putting a strain on the wireless network in the Hemicycle.
So what did the High-speed connections group discuss?
I was expecting the discussion on the Thursday to centre around the issue of rural broadband access in each country and examples of how projects were tackling the mismatch between commercial investment and community needs. Alas a lot of the examples were city-based, with one good Dutch example only rolling out in communities of 10,000+ people, when the cost was less than €1000 per property passed. A lot of those presenting were involved in city roll-outs, which suggested perhaps that the UK may be ahead in some respects, and impressive fibre stats often appeared to include FTTx, i.e. all the varieties as in node, premise, cabinet and building. If one includes the DOCSIS 3.0 network of Virgin Media then the UK is looking pretty good.
The discussion on investment from the European Investment Bank offered some hope, with the prospect of soft loans and other forms of funding beyond the model so far adopted in the UK. The consensus in the room was that the telecommunications companies rolling out fibre services will often not be the ones to benefit, as the benefits are much wider, in that once fast ubiquitous broadband is available a wide range of benefits to residents, businesses and local government come on stream, the financial benefit of which outstrips the cost of installing the fibre network.
How much will the EU 2020 targets cost?
The EU has allocated over €9bn to meeting the targets, but when the costings so far indicate that it will cost in the order of €200bn to meet the targets, the scale of investment needed by the banks, firms and governments becomes apparent. Firms in the private sector are calling on regulatory certainty as the current cycle of drastic changes every few years makes investors wary of long term investment in this area. i.e. plans that have a payback term of eight years or longer.
The second day – the Hemicycle
To be seated in the Hemicycle was a privilege (seat 499 here), but one cannot accuse the EU of wasting money on air conditioning as the meeting rooms and Hemicycle were both warm. While the debates were long, the constant interaction via twitter kept everyone awake and engaged.
The second day saw summaries presented from each of the eight key areas, with the disjoint between the online discussion and the meeting day agenda being raised. Some actually asked why the constant worry about rural areas in the UK, though its not certain if this is because other countries are behind the UK, or that local authorities are better at handling this e.g. municipalities in Sweden rolling out their own fibre.
One overarching theme could be applied to all the discussion of the day–ubiquity of access to superfast broadband changes how many things work.
The best summary for what needs to happen to make Europe truly digital in the 21st Century is:
- The online experience must be personal to individuals
- The Internet must be easy to access and make use of
- To address with urgency the pace of rollout (in context of other continents outpacing the EU)
- Ensuring ubiquity of access, to avoid expensive population migration to the cities
So while our discussions in themselves didn’t solve any problems, those from the UK who attended were able to convey some of the UK’s concerns and knowledge into the EU melting pot. With the UK being an island, there is a tendency for us to distance ourselves from the EU on a day-to-day basis, but if we are to engage and ensure we have the funds available to make our broadband as good or better than other countries in Europe, we need to participate.
As things stand the UK does not sit that well in any league table that features full fibre-to-the-home, but we may be able to change that, not overnight, but over the course of a few years if we can pull the UK beyond its current strategy towards a network that becomes the catalyst to under pin the 21st Century economy that the UK and the rest of the EU will need to grow itself out of the current economic situation.