I apologise for not blogging earlier on this opportunity for you to help drag UK communications policy forward into the 21st century. I spend my summer break in a not-spot (infrastructure not upgraded since the last century) where I needed twenty minutes of clean signal to download anything more than e-mail headings, let alone send an e-mail or browse the net.
[Do not feel sorry for me. I sat by the window sipping whisky, watching the seals scratch themselves and the buzzards hunt for lunch, while the solar panels charged my smart phone and netbook as they sought a 2G signal from the other side of the Loch. Feel sorry for those for whom this is their year round service - not just a break from the on-line merry-go-round].
Much of the background material in the Digital Communications Infrastructure consultation document is myopic. Some say that indicates how little officials have appreciated the changes under way. Others say if reflects the antiquity of parts of the infrastructure. More-over publicity for the consultation has been muted and its timing might seem to imply HMG is going through the motions and in not serious. But the politicians are serious and the consequences of a lack of response other than from those contacted will be profound. An example of the latter can be seen in the statements regarding user expectations in Ofcoms recently updated guidance on network security . No attributable inputs to the consultation that led to that update were received other than from BT, KCOM, Sky, EE, Vodaphone, Three, Verizon, DWP and the ICO. It appears there were no inputs from network users, large or small, other than from Government.
The importance of the responses to the questions in the Infrastructure consultation cover letter (see below) can be seen from recent news cover confirming that BT's investment programme (other than to acquire sporting rights to give away to stop the loss of revenue to Sky, Talk Talk, Virgin and others) or funded by government has come to an end and Openreach is now focussed on service improvement.
When I have been able to digest the consultation paper and the e-mails I have received commenting on it, I will plan to juxtapose these with material on recent attempts to open up the sclerotic UK market to more effective competition and on other opportunities to not only influence the political and regulatory agendas at both UK and EU level, but bring forward no risk, rapid payback investment in bottleneck removal without waiting for the result of the consultation.
In the mean time, this consultation offers the start point for bringing about changes as profound as those triggered by the studies on which I worked back in 1978 -9 which led to telecommunications liberalisation and privatisation and the revolution that followed.
Do respond. Including on the questions that are not asked.
Speak now or live with the conseuences.
The Chancellor for the Exchequer has today launched a consultation published jointly by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Infrastructure UK seeking evidence to inform a new Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy.
DCMS' Connectivity, Content and Consumers report identified a need to develop a longer term strategy to build on the UK's strong digital foundations. The strategy will consider the measures needed, from Government and others, to ensure that the UK has the infrastructure in place to meet user demand and to continue to benefit from world-class communications networks as technology and the digital economy develop further over the next ten to fifteen years.
We are not consulting on a draft strategy or on specific policy proposals. The consultation instead poses a set of intentionally broad questions to draw out evidence on the expected demands of business and consumers on technology and infrastructure. It also asks for views on the challenges likely to be faced in providing the infrastructure to meet those demands.
The questions are grouped according to the following themes:
• the role of Government;
• scenarios of possible user demand and technological developments set against a backdrop of a range of influencing factors;
• how the regulatory framework could change to maintain competition and to facilitate provision of infrastructure to meet demand; and
• the scale of private investment required, and by when and by whom.
We would welcome your responses to the consultation, which will close on 1 October 2014.
You can find the consultation document, along with details of how to respond, on the Government website: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/digital-communications-infrastructure-strategy-consultation
If you have any questions about the consultation please email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org. "
I remind you of the value of releasing your submissions to the press and of placing them on websites for easy reference, whether or not the department does so.
This makes it easier for those actions which do not require any change of government policy to gather pace as soon as investors perceive the necessary critical mass of support and investment analysts ask pertinent questions. An example of the latter might be: "Is the sum of the parts of BT worth more than the whole and is its "national role" therefore the main factor, apart from management ambition, militating against break up?". If so: "What should be the role of government, apart from maintaining a "golden share" in those parts which are part of the critical national infrastructure."
Time has moved on but the stakes today are as high as they were in 1979 and the need for radical thinking is every bit as great.
The good news is that we see the impact of BT's £2.5 billion investment over recent years and of the Government's £1.2bn add-on funding . On-line purchases have risen sharply in the wake of broadband improvements . The use of video streaming services such as Netflix is also rising. The bad news is that the headline take-up of BT Infinity appears to have been below expectations and its overall revenues are falling. Hence its retrenchment and focus on giving away sports content and also improving service
But if that is BT's foward strategy then much of the UK (urban as well as rural) faces economic stagnation and social exclusion - unless it can draw in infrastructure investment from:
- Virgin (as with its 100,000 homes extension in East London),
- Sky (although it now appears focussed on deals to exploit infrastructure investments by others),
- Arqiva (probably about to receive a new injection of funds for long term investment if the UK climate looks ripe),
- Mobile and Wifi Operators (faced with soaring consumer volumes but not revenues and therefore planning to better exploit location independent business and service markets).
- Sovereign wealth and pensions funds looking for ways of investing in broadband utilities, large and small: using a kaleidoscope of business models (involving local authorities, business parks, commercial and social landlords and self help groups) to turn risk investment into boringly safe long term returns.
We should also remember that in Sweden the incumbent telco became an anchor tenant of many of the shared municipal communications utilities when it ran out of investment funds. Some of BT recent succesful wifi and public service delivery bids indicate that it too is exploring alternative business models as its costs of borrowing rise because it is viewed as as a media company rather than a utility.
When I tried to work out likely UKIP technology policies, based on the views of some of its new MEPs regarding "capitalism not corporatism" and the issues local to their areas, I realised that in their eyes the UK faces a simple choice:
Is it to become a sink for imported content with our high streets bankrupted by extra-terratorial and untaxed (except in Ireland or Luxembourg) on-line e-tailers?
Is to once again be a global hub for trusted, wealth creating and taxpaying businesses, setting its own agenda?
Hence the importance of this consultation.