Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The story so far

My interest in superfast started with a project for a client who asked the question whether government funds were better put to work in extending broadband coverage or speed. When I accepted the project, I thought it would be relatively easy - primarily a modelling exercise based on existing research into the benefits of each. However, when we started looking at the research into superfast, it turned out to be relatively thin. Moreover, given the costs involved, we found we had to make heroic assumptions about the benefits of superfast - and in particular FTTH - to believe that it was a better return on societal investment than FTTC or extended coverage of basic broadband. This got me wondering if the emperor was in fact fully dressed. (The results of this project are here).

As it happens, my brother Charles, a development economist, has done work in the same area. After some discussion, we decided we should write a joint paper taking a hard look at the case for superfast, and in particular its purported societal benefits. He focussed on the economics (since he understands them) and I focussed on the applications and technical side. Working on this paper made me think that even if the emperor did in fact have some clothes, he certainly didn't wear them very often. Time and again, advocates for subsidising superfast to the home made one of three errors, basing their case on applications that:
  • Could run on superfast, but equally could run on more basic broadband
  • Had little societal benefit, and therefore did not seem to justify government intervention
  • Did not require connectivity to home, but rather to businesses
Moreover, evidence seemed to be being used very casually and frequently misleadingly (see The hall of shame for some of the more shocking examples).

Charles' and my paper was published in November 2010 (with an academic version in the journal info in 2011). It attracted a fair bit of attention, not least in Australia where feelings run high on broadband policy. Some people thought the paper was full of good sense, others thought we were idiots. (Our reply to the latter is here, on p6).

Since then I've continued write and present on the topic. Fibre-caution remains a minority view (at least in public - it's interesting what people in pro-fibre organisations sometimes say behind closed doors), but I'm sticking to it for the time being, until the evidence suggests otherwise.

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