September 19, 2007 10:20 AM PDT

U.K. government may back fiber rollout to homes

The U.K. government may intervene to promote the deployment of fiber connectivity across the United Kingdom, according to the country's minister of state for competitiveness.

Stephen Timms, formerly the U.K.'s e-commerce minister, made a speech on Tuesday in which he warned of the danger of falling behind other countries in broadband speeds. The speech was made to the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which recently called for a fiber rollout to keep the U.K. competitive.

"When I became e-commerce minister five years ago, the U.K. was neck-and-neck with Croatia on broadband availability and use," Timms said. "Together, thanks in no small measure to the work of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, we fixed that problem and put Britain in a leading position. However, today we face a new challenge. Other countries are starting to invest in new, fiber-based infrastructure, delivering considerably higher bandwidth than is available in the U.K. today."

"As minister for competitiveness, I see it as one of my highest personal priorities that we have a high-performance telecommunications infrastructure in every part of the country, enabling us to compete successfully on a global basis," Timms continued. "That is why I have decided to chair a high-level summit later this year to consider the circumstances that might trigger public-sector intervention, the form that intervention might take, and at what level it might sensibly take place."

According to sources at the BSG, that summit is likely to take place in November or December, with delegates from industry, the regulator Ofcom and the government taking part. The BSG also apparently wants to see the government set targets for measuring the U.K.'s broadband infrastructure against its main economic rivals.

Although the U.K.'s broadband infrastructure is based on a fiber backbone, the "last mile" connections between homes and telephone exchanges are almost entirely copper-based. With high-bandwidth applications such as IP television becoming a reality, many industry observers are concerned at the potential bottlenecks this situation could create. However, BT is reluctant to commit to upgrading copper connections to fiber because, under the current regulatory environment, it would then have to open up that infrastructure to its rivals.

However, the price of copper is rising and BT's outgoing chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, hinted recently that fiber to the home could become a reality in the U.K., as it has elsewhere in Western Europe.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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