Opinion: Super fast broadband via the sewers is fine, but ISPs need incentives to improve

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andy-merrett.jpgOfcom has decided to conduct a survey of Britain’s pipework to test its suitability for carrying fibre-optic cabling for use in high speed broadband networks.

Bournemouth Council has already tested broadband via the sewers, so it’s possible, but the main problem is that most ISPs don’t have a real incentive to roll out faster services.

Two issues — the growing use of mobile Internet, and Internet users’ skyrocketing demand for Video on Demand and other bandwidth-intensive multimedia — were never envisaged when the Internet was born.

Demands on bandwidth increase while broadband prices fall in Britain’s highly competitive market. It’s no wonder the idea of Net Neutrality is scoffed at, with some ISPs calling for content providers to pay up.

Content owners must fund distribution costs for many other types of media — post, courier, fax, telephone — so should they really expect to be able to distribute their content for free online? Cost of creation is a separate issue.

ISPs are businesses, and whatever you think of their speed throttling tactics and mystical “up to 8 meg” speed claims, they are essential to all the multimedia downloading, streaming, file-sharing, and video-on-demanding that we want to do.

Part of the problem is poorly encoded multimedia, and it’s certainly worth tackling the potential bandwidth crisis from both ends. Earlier today I spoke with a senior executive at a company involved in distributing video (including high definition) over the Internet, and he said that there had been significant advances in compression technology which could see full 1080p HD video streamed to customers with as little as a 1.5Mbps broadband connection.

Scale that up to streaming a live event to thousands of people and that’s still a lot of strain on the networks, which is why he believes that ISPs should get a cut of the revenue generated from content delivered over their networks, rather than simply relying on the monthly broadband subscription fees.

Why else are the major ISPs rolling out their own VoD-over-broadband services? BT didn’t give you a shiny Home Hub and access to thousands of pay-for films and programmes just so you’d have something nice to watch without having to go out to the video store.

Giving ISPs a cut of revenue from legitimate content doesn’t solve the issue of bandwidth used up by illegal downloads and less controlled sites such as YouTube, but it’s a start. We have to start somewhere, because while 50 Meg broadband trials and independent reviews are all very nice — as is the utopian concept of Net Neutrality — ISPs aren’t going to invest in high-speed networks without some guarantee of making money.

Andy Merrett