Super-fast broadband in the “Digital Region”

After Swindon unveiled its “Digital City” initiative last week, even Wiltshire residents may be now wistfully looking over to South Yorkshire as the heart of its new Digital Region project goes live. While it may not boast free Internet access, it is promising a “guaranteed” 25Mbit/s service and that its users will “get what they pay for.”

Digital Region Limited (DRL) is wholly owned by South Yorkshire’s four local authorities – Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster – in partnership with Yorkshire Forward, its regional development agency. It’s an experiment in catering for consumers in an area where ISPs are reluctant to invest in infrastructure while, because more than one service provider will be able to make use of DRL’s super-fast network, at the same time retaining an element of choice for the end user.

And customers won’t have to deal with the dreaded “up to” prefix in their stated connection speeds, as the DRL website explains:-
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The DRL Network is offering 25Mbit/s+ of bandwidth which is both guaranteed and can be delivered with a range definable Quality of Service attributes. In simple terms, this means the end user gets what they pay for; if the end user requires 10Mbit/s they receive a guaranteed 10Mbit/s; if they want 5Mbit/s or 25Mbit/s this is guaranteed.

With 90 million of European funding behind the project, an EU procurement exercise resulted in electronics firm Thales UK being chosen to install and manage the fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology it’s being built around. “Places like South Yorkshire were always at the back end of the queue when current-generation broadband was rolled out – if they waited for the industry to respond, they would again be at the back end of the queue,” says Phil Hodge, business development director at the firm. “The idea is to offer a commercial service, so obviously the price for the consumer is going to be set by the market, but the wholesale prices are set to be competitive with what’s out there already,” he adds.

While the Digital Region project was undertaken three years ago, it was today that the network operating centre at its core was switched on – and only now can the network rollout begin in earnest. The aim has been for the first homes connected to go online next year and, according to Thales, around ninety-seven per cent of homes and businesses across South Yorkshire will ultimately benefit (in other words, around half a million homes and forty thousand businesses).

DRL says the “vast majority” of work should be complete by 2012 – though EU procurement issues mean work is behind its ideal schedule. But who’ll actually be providing the broadband service in question? “We have partners lined up, but we can’t really reveal who they are today, though we’re talking with all the obvious candidates and a lot of local ones, as well,” Hodge continues. “Because we’ve only just gone live with the network, we’ve got to do some testing and trials, and then hopefully those ISPs will sign up in the new year. We hope to be delivering commercial services pretty much straight after that.”

It appears one unforeseen consequence of the Digital Britain endeavour is the increasing adoption of the term “Digital” by authorities across the land, which are using it almost as a marketing brand.

Three years away from the Government’s deadline on meeting its Universal Service Commitment, we already have a Digital Region and a Digital City4 – very different projects that should supplement other moves to proliferate broadband throughout the UK.

Perhaps, the literal minded would say, we should just rename the country “Digital Britain” and have done with it.

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References

  1. ^ DRL website (www.digitalregion.co.uk)
  2. ^ says (news.zdnet.co.uk)
  3. ^ adds (www.pcpro.co.uk)
  4. ^ Digital City (www.samknows.com)

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