Expert View: Internet - The flexibility of fast broadband

Outside my flat there is a large billboard encouraging customers to sign up for "the mother of all broadbands".

It offers speeds of up to 20 megabits per second and the possibility of 50mbps in the near future - much faster than current connections, which typically operate at about 8mbps. BT recently announced plans to give 10 million homes and businesses speeds of up to 40mbps - five times faster than the current average - and some owners of newly built homes could get up to 100mbps. For the third sector, this presents real opportunities, but also throws up some challenges.

At a time when people are feeling the credit crunch and trying to reduce their carbon footprints, next-generation access could facilitate more home working and improve video conferencing with colleagues. By reducing travel costs, NGA could make flexible working a reality for more people.

I can see the business and consumer benefits of faster broadband connections (for example, multiplayer online gaming and faster downloads for music or TV programmes), but the social applications of this technology remain relatively untried and untested.

A consultation by Ofcom in 2006 recognised this when it said "the majority of the applications and services generally proposed for next-generation access are entertainment services that may result in limited incremental social benefit". The Broadband Stakeholder Group, a UK industry and government forum that looks at broadband-related strategies, echoed this recently when it said that "so far, there is limited evidence of significant social welfare being derived from next-generation access networks or services".

I'd like to see charities give some serious thought to how they can use NGA to innovate. It could be used to facilitate remote health monitoring and consultations, mentoring and befriending schemes, home and community security initiatives, life-long learning programmes and much more.

Because of the high investment costs required to build a UK-wide NGA network, roll-out is likely to happen in phases. Charities therefore need to think about how they could use this technology. They also need effectively to state the case for why they need these higher bandwidths, or whether services can be delivered by improving the reliability and consistency of today's broadband.

If the sector doesn't do this, there's a risk that businesses and certain consumer types will be at the front of the queue, with charities lingering near the back. I'm sure the sector doesn't want to see that happen.

 - Damian Radcliffe is manager for the English regions at Ofcom

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