TDI: an alternative to 'superfast broadband'

There is a lot of talk in UK national and local government on the need to develop ‘superfast broadband’ – indeed the government has made a commitment for the UK to have the ‘best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015’. There is an assumption that the private sector is developing this in our major cities already and that the state needs to intervene to help in rural areas – the so-called ‘final third’.

There is an argument to be had about the meaning of terms like ‘superfast broadband’ and ‘next generation access’ (NGA). The UK government is working on the assumption that more than 24Mbps down speed is ‘superfast’. Given the speeds they are enjoying in countries like Korea and Japan, that is very unambitious. But the lack of ambition isn't limited to speed.

Beyond speed

 

Arguably the most important technical benefits of networks that take fibre all the way to the user – ‘fibre to the premises’ or FTTP – are reduced latency and jitter, symmetrical speed, low contention and capacity for multiple services from multiple providers delivered over the same connection. There is a parallel with first generation broadband, which unleashed a wave of innovation leading to developments like Wikipedia and Youtube mainly because it was always on, not because it was faster.

David Brunnen takes this theme up in his blog arguing that FTTP is “not an upgrade”. The idea that FTTP will allow us to escape the notion that we should receive all network services from a sole broadband provider points to a change that goes well beyond technology and raises the issue of the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’.

TDI

I work with colleagues in CBN to advise leading UK cities on ways to develop their digital infrastructure to promote economic development and ‘digital inclusion’. We emphasise the opportunity that comes from the development of a ‘transformational digital infrastructure’ or TDI, a term my colleague Brian Condon and I coined in an attempt to get away from terms like ‘NGA’ and ‘superfast broadband’.

In the government’s plans, and in some local projects, there is a dangerous assumption that if someone will come and dig up all our roads and install ‘superfast broadband’ (or even a proper fibre network) this will unleash innovation and it will be ‘job done’. The problem with this is that it will not have brought about the structural changes in the digital economy that are needed to help drive the next wave of innovation.

Lessons from the past

It is useful to look at the development of the digital sector in a city like Manchester in the 1990’s – a huge driver of innovation for the city. The first internet services were provided by innovating small businesses that created the market awareness and consequent demand that enabled them to expand into areas like web design and hosting. The important role played by smaller and independent service providers meant that the first hosting facilities – like Telecity, which started in Manchester – were fully open, which in turn led to the development of peering activity and the only significant internet exchange outside London. Where closed hosting centres (tied to one carrier) have been the norm, which happened in some cities, this has restricted the scope for innovation.

Now, in recognition of that process, Manchester is focusing on the need to develop open infrastructure with maximum opportunity for local business to contribute at different layers in the networks and hosting facilities – different parts of the value chain. This can be contrasted with the approach taken by many cities and regions that looks for ‘creative’ innovation solely at the content layer on the top, driven by media and ‘creative’ businesses. The approach we have advocated in Manchester is that it is important to create a whole range of opportunities: for technical businesses to build, maintain, and operate the infrastructure; for technical and scientific business to develop applications made possible because of the infrastructure; as well as the opportunities for media, creative, knowledge and content businesses. That range of opportunities will not be there without careful attention to issues of ownership, structure and competition in the deployment of infrastructure. This can be summarised in the phrase ‘the journey is as important as the destination’: how we build a new infrastructure is as important as achieving it.

Beyond broadband

A consequence of this approach, drawing on the lessons of the last wave of innovation, is to go beyond ‘faster broadband’ when looking at digital infrastructure and so maximise the scope for innovation. Thus for example, a new fibre and wireless shared network infrastructure would offer the possibility of delivering public services – including transformational new services like telehealth – “on net”, without needing to cross the internet with the implied transit costs. The contrast here is between a conventional approach that sees NGA as the vehicle for premium internet services delivered to businesses and affluent consumers (and hopes to attract private sector investment on the back of that premium), and an innovative approach that sees the opportunity to deliver services in poorer areas, tackle social exclusion and make huge savings in public sector service provision in the process – savings that could be used to help pay for the investment.

Three pillars of TDI

Moving away from a focus on ‘superfast broadband’ and setting out to create an open infrastructure means working on hubs and backhaul as well as the fibre/wireless access networks – I call these the ‘three pillars’ of transformational digital infrastructure: end-user networks to create the market; hubs to concentrate and aggregate demand for connectivity and hosting; and backhaul connections between them. Applications like advanced cloud computing demand very low latency, which means decentralizing hosting infrastructure: physics determines that there is no way round this. The new Sharp Project in North Manchester is home to digital and creative businesses and offers open hosting facilities, access to connectivity, and low cost internet transit. This makes a hub that can serve new local networks and a great place to locate content and applications - a real and extant example of TDI.