Manchester to gain fibre network
A project to build a fibre network in Manchester could offer insights into how the UK can make next-generation broadband pay for itself.
The network will serve homes and businesses in the area known as the Manchester corridor.
It will exist as a testbed for new services and is likely to be watched closely by national government bodies.
The UK has been criticised for being too slow to roll out next generation broadband.
The £1m project, funded by the North West Development Agency, will initially serve 500 businesses and 1,000 homes.
Shaun Fenson is an advisor to the Manchester Digital Development Agency which is overseeing the project. He believes it is the largest publicly-funded fibre-to-the-home rollout in the UK.
It is hoped that the network will allow Manchester to compete with other European cities and reinvigorate the media the technology sectors of the city.
The government is likely to keep a close eye on how many content providers offer services via the network and the type of applications that appeal to consumers.
With speeds of 100Mbps (megabits per second) for both download and uploads, those behind the project hope it will also breed some innovative services.
"It will allow home working, telemedicine, video calling and net-based services on TV," explained Chris Smedley, chief executive of Geo, the company appointed to build the network.
Such services are often touted as great uses for fibre-to-the-home networks but most are at a very embryonic stage.
But there are more mundane wins for consumers, thinks Mr Smedley.
Because it has super-fast upload speeds, a fibre-to-the-home network will allow users to store data such as pictures and videos remotely.
"It could completely revolutionise the way computers are used. Consumer devices won't have to be as big because they won't have to store as much. They won't crash so often and data will be more secure," said Mr Smedley.
Such immediate access to the network could create some interesting new services, he thinks.
"I can imagine a service where people connect their camera to the hard-drive and immediately an alert is sent to friends and family which could appear as a channel on your TV and allow them to view a stream of your pictures," he said.
Geo is in talks with ten other local authorities to offer similar networks, often in areas not served by BT and Virgin Media's plans for super-fast broadband.
BT has pledged to cover around half of the UK with fibre services but the majority of these will be fibre-to-the-cabinet, which is much slower than fibre-to-the-home.
Virgin Media has upgraded its cable network to support speeds of up to 60Mbps (megabits per second).
The UK government hopes to kick-start a wider roll-out with its next-generation fund, a pot of £1bn raised by taxing landline phone users.
For Mr Fensom, neither BT nor Virgin offer "true next generation services" but he does hope that the Manchester example will offer proof to government that there are alternative ways of rolling out such networks.
"The hope is that networks such as this will successfully spread. BT will lay fibre in some places and communities in others," he said.
"The job then is to make sure that all the networks are interoperable," he added.
For him the real attraction for the Manchester network will be the opportunity it offers for consumers to move away from the traditional ISP model.
Instead of choosing one service provider, users will be able to "pick and mix" content offerings.
MDDA is in talks with a range of providers, including the NHS and the BBC.
Some services, for example local TV, could be offered direct to users without having to go through an ISP.
Community services could be offered for free.
"Imagine the power of being able to have a face to face conversation with your GP via a high speed connection direct to the surgery," said Mr Fenson.
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