Former BT CTO slams Budget broadband pledges

Dr Peter Cochrane says UK has “no vision, no mission, no business plan”

Former BT CTO, Dr Peter Cochrane, has slammed Chancellor George Osborne's Budget announcements around broadband today, claiming that the UK has "no vision, no mission and no business plan" for delivering a 21st century infrastructure.

Cochrane has been providing evidence to a Lords Select Committee on the government's plans for superfast broadband rollout, where it aims to have the 'best broadband network in Europe by 2015'.

Osborne's Budget included an allocation of £100 million to create ten super-connected cities in the UK, including Birmingham, Edinburgh and Leeds, and a further £50m to create a second wave of smaller super-connected cities.

This funding comes in addition to £630 million of broadband funding that had been allocated previously. Cochrane views the numbers provided by government as laughable.

"The numbers that are talked about by the government are all out by an order of magnitude. When Osborne is talking about £50 million he really needs to be talking about £500 million. When he is talking about £500 million, he actually needs to be talking about £1.5 billion. That's the reality," Cochrane told Computerworld UK.

He estimates that for the government to get fibre to every home in the UK, an investment of between £10 billion and £15 billion needs to be made, a far cry from the amount being proposed at the moment.

Cochrane also takes issues with the superfast broadband speeds that are regularly cited by the government, currently referred to as speeds above 24 Mbps, and also the timeframe it will take to achieve a national superfast broadband network.

"100 Mbps isn't good enough. If we are going to have connected cities, it really needs to be at 1 Gbit/s, so that we are on a part with China, Korea, Japan and Sweden," he said.

"Also, when I say 100 Mbps and 1 Gbit/s, I mean both ways. 24Mbps is not superfast and it's also not broadband, it's asymmetric. On an asymmetric service you can't have effective video conferencing, you can't have effective cloud computing. This country will not be entering cloud computing in a big way because we won't have the infrastructure, which means we won't be accessing the super computer services that will be available," he added.

"None of this is going to happen by 2015. All that's going to happen in 2015 is that the government are going to declare that they are the winners. But they won't be."

Cochrane argues that competition in the UK broadband market is weak, which is driving down quality and speeds, and as a result, ISPs should move away from competing on infrastructure and move towards competing on services. He suggests that for this to happen Ofcom should regulate BT to lease its fibre to other operators.

"The competition shouldn't be about fibre in the ground, it should be about the services put on the fibre. Take the mobile market and 3G as an example, all of the mobile operators bought 36,000 masts each at a cost of £2bn each. When in fact one set of 36,000 towers would have done the job, they could have shared them, and competed on services," he said.

"We could empower Ofcom to regulate BT's wavelengths on fibre and use different wavelengths for different players on fibre that's already in the ground. Other ISPs would just lease the wavelengths from BT at a competitive rate. BT needs to make a bit of money obviously, but if they extort the prices they will cripple the opportunity," he added.

"This model works for power and gas, it could work for broadband."

Finally, Cochrane blames the government for its guidance on the broadband problem in the UK and says that until it develops a realistic plan for deployment to all homes it will not achieve its goal of having the best superfast network in Europe by 2015.

"In my view we have a serious leadership problem. I don't know what this country is going to be when it grows up, and neither does anyone else," he said.

"This country has no vision, no mission and no business plan. Until we have these for the UK, we are going to continue wasting energy meandering around making random decisions and quoting random numbers," he added.

"Hopefully the government will get to that point because broadband is every bit important as road, water, gas and electricity."

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