A new initiative to provide broadband testbeds for businesses could drive a whole new generation of innovative services according to a government agency,

The Technology Strategy Board, set up by the government to support technological innovation, has committed itself to a £2m investment to establish five broadband hotspots or testbeds that could be used to test a range of business models, applications and services.

The hotspots have been set up with the objective of addressing the barriers between the ISPs and the content providers that prevent new business models being developed. The TSN hopes that by establishing these testbeds using real networks and genuine users, the content providers could glean what new products or services would work.

According to Maurizio Pilu, lead technologist with the TSB, the iniative came about because the government wanted to know what kind of experimentation could be done by business. "The problem was," said Pilu, "that unless you're a big business you can't really experiment with live networks as the large ISPs are not making these available. We decided to challenge the community to bring a real lab online, where businesses could start paying to test their innovative products."

One of the key elements of this, added Pilu, was that these were non-commercial projects that couldn't be funded another way. "There has to be an element of risk," he said.

As an example of the sort of service that could be offered, Pilu suggested was a way of playing around with quality of service. "If you're a movie download company , you could experiment with things like a free service where you get a standard delivery or you pay more to get better and faster delivery."

Pilu was quick to spike suggestions that this was impinging on the debate over net neutrality which has bedevilled Internet debate in the US and over here. "We want to keep activity separate from the political debate – this is purely about demonstrating new services."

The hotspots will be administered by five companies who won out after some stiff competition. Pilu would not be drawn on how many had entered but he said that "many times the number chosen" applied to be selected. The five administrators are: AIMES Grid Services CIC, aQovia UK, Avanti Communications, Bubblephone and Ovation Data Services, all of whom lead consortia designed to offer a range of support services.

The initiative is set to run for some time. "Over the next 18 months, we'll see the demonstrators go live – and see what's going to happen. As to payments for the trials, they will be up to the individual administrators," said Pilu.