UK trailing in global broadband league

Representatives from the government, the regulator Ofcom and industry will hold a crisis summit today to discuss how to prevent the UK slipping down the global broadband league.

The government's independent advisory body, the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG), will tell the meeting that the long-term benefits to the UK economy of having the next generation of super-fast networks will outweigh the estimated £16bn it will cost to introduce them over the coming years.

Last year, the government said that Britain risks being left behind if industry fails to invest in networks capable of delivering speeds of 50 to 100 megabits a second. The current average residential broadband speed is about five megabits a second. The need to invest has become more acute over the past few months with the success of services providing video over the internet, such as the BBC iPlayer.

Some internet companies have warned that their networks are struggling under the weight of such services and with others due to be launched over the next few years, bottlenecks are appearing across the country.

BT and Virgin Media are already experimenting with faster networks, but the economic case has yet to be made for rolling out fast access to everyone in the UK.

The BSG believes public investment will be needed in some areas to ensure everyone can enjoy the sort of super-fast services already available in countries such as Korea and Japan.

The meeting, which coincides with the publication of the BSG's latest report into so-called next-generation access networks, comes as former Cable & Wireless chief executive Francesco Caio carries out an investigation on behalf of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Caio will update the industry on his progress at the event.

Surprisingly, the BSG believes that the industry does not have to start investing in next-generation networks immediately. According to the group, getting a coordinated approach is much more important.

"We're talking about a really big change in the industry," said Antony Walker, chief executive of the BSG. "Next-generation broadband has the potential to transform the way we do things. It is tempting to jump in feet first, but it matters more to do this right than to do it now."

But he did stress: "On the other hand, the UK cannot wait too long. If widespread network deployment didn't happen in the medium term - perhaps three to five years - then ... the UK could be losing out."

The BSG's report suggests businesses would reap a number of benefits from faster networks, such as increased productivity, the potential to decrease congestion by flexible working and employment opportunities in rural areas

Walker said: "There's a lot we can learn from around the world, then doing it right rather than being early and getting it wrong," he said. "We're reasonably confident that there is between 18 months and two years to make a decision."

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