Thursday, March 11, 2010

Social Change at Broadband Speed

Broadband access is now seen as a fundamental right by 4 out 5 people surveyed in a BBC World Service survey. The research was performed across 26 countries and consumers in both highly-networked and broadband-deprived countries were as one in their belief in the right to communicate. Was TV or radio ever seen as a basic right? Was the newspaper ever seen as a basic right?

Last year, Finland became the first country to make broadband access a human right to be enjoyed by all citizens and the government now has to provide 1Mb broadband to all its 5.3 million citizens.

The race to get more bandwidth and make it more widely available is clearly a challenge. In the UK, Virgin Media aim to use telegraph poles to extend the reach of FTTH (fiber-to-the-home). According to Virgin Media users participating in a test will get download speeds of up to 50Mbps. The objective being to test whether using telegraph poles is a viable fiber option to rural areas and instead of digging and laying cable underground, it merely piggybacks over the posts.

However, fiber has still got a very long way to go with only 15 European countries having a fiber market penetration of 1% or over. The highest fiber penetration is in Lithuania, Sweden, Norway, Slovenia and Estonia.

Broadband speed has even become a political football in the impeding UK general election. The Conservatives are pledging to give Britain the fastest high speed broadband network in Europe. They claim that they will increase the current speeds of between 3MBPS and 4.5Mbps, to 100 Mbps, to most homes by 2017. The current government wants everyone to get at least 2Mbps by 2012 and claims it has already promised 100Mbps broadband to 90% of the population by 2017. The difference appears on how each party will get there, with Labour wanting to raise a levy of 50p-a-month on people with fixed land lines, whilst the Conservatives see private funding topped up potentially with the BBC licence.

So as we move into this permanently connected fast speed information superhighway, what will it mean to the average person, the infirmed, the unemployed and the well off? Will it change how we communicate, what we communicate and how we access information and how we consume media? The challenge is not broadband, but the social challenges and opportunities it delivers.

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