The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is to trial applications over next generation optical fibre to test whether consumers and businesses would use the extra bandwidth provided by the technology.
The board is looking to find out whether residential customers would make use of the sort of services that a high bandwidth network would enable.
BT and other ISPs fear that their expensive build out of network infrastructure will be underutilised and fail to generate sufficient revenue to justify the upfront capital costs.
BT has said that the commercial case for a full rollout is questionable, even in areas of high density. However, its recent commitment to deploy a variant of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), called fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), gets around the problem.
FTTP would allow BT to offset high infrastructure investment by spreading the costs over a significant number of users – for example residential customers in blocks of flats, or business users situated in the same business park.
TSB electronics and photonics lead technologist Nick Appleyard said: “We are looking to build confidence that new products and services will work over this infrastructure, and you can only really test this by putting the technology in front of real customers."
Appleyard explained that this was not a trial for network hardware, but one that would look at the layer above that – the application and services layer.
"The services we will look at will be aimed at individual and [small] business users. Potentially, they could also be extended into mobile phone-delivered services, too."
Appleyard pointed out that the TSB was not a policy body and could only act within the government's policy remit.
"What we can do, however, is help to encourage private sector investment by demonstrating that the private sector will see a return on investment. We also want to show what that return is likely to be," he said.
Appleyard envisages two or three locations for the service rollouts, which he said will have to be on a big enough scale to get statistically significant data.
"What the TSB will be looking for is a ready-made community that we can upgrade with five years’ worth of internet development," said Appleyard.
The TSB system will be on an "opt-in if you want it – opt-out if you don't basis". Users will get services five years ahead of the game, while ISPs will get an understanding of how their services will work.
"They’ll be able to collect data on what the user groups think of their services," said Appleyard.
As for a start date, Appleyard said: "We'll tender the programme for IT procurement in about a week's time. We need to liaise with the firms who are going to build the IT core of this further down the line. We plan to go live mid 2010."