It’s always been reasonably clear – provided you don’t work for BT of course – that the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) procurement and delivery model was not fit for purpose, lacked ambition, and hindered the work of small altnets and community projects.
So now that BDUK is pretty well-advanced, and we’re well on our way to 90%* fibre** coverage, it’s really welcome to see that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is consulting on fresh approaches to BDUK as it approaches that 95% milestone, and the issue of touching those remaining premises, down those narrow lanes that seem to be getting longer and more rutted, or in those valleys that seem to be getting deeper and more isolated, can be ducked no longer.
You can read the consultation document here, and if you’re a stakeholder in any way I’d urge you give this some time and take an hour or two in the next month to formulate some responses, because you genuinely can influence the future of BDUK here, and help take superfast*** broadband connectivity to everyone.
For me, one of the most intriguing points raised, and the one I have focused on in my story for Computer Weekly, was the idea of setting up publicly-owned broadband providers as part of a new delivery and funding model for BDUK:
Public sector owned supplier: Under this approach, an arms-length company, owned by one or more Implementing Bodies, would invest in, and provide, broadband infrastructure services to end customers through service contracts.
The thought of buying broadband services from an asset owned by local councils interests me greatly. How would it work? Who would pay who? Council-owned ISPs are unlikely to be on the table, thank God, we’re obviously talking council owned assets supplying private sector suppliers, in this case ISPs.
So could we see the emergence of a model similar to that used by local authorities for contracting out rubbish collection to the likes of Serco, which claims to have a £1.5bn order-book of rubbish?
Giving the idea of public-ownership of national assets some further thought, it then occurred to me that one could theoretically bring the network under government control.
Which would surely mean nationalising Openreach and bringing BT’s infrastructure arm into public ownership.
Can it be done? There is certainly precedent. Just consider the state of the country’s railways, the vocal and influential movement for re-nationalisation, the extremely successful temporary running of the East Coast mainline franchise by the government, and the recent news that Transport for London (TfL) would like to take over the running of some of London’s failing surface rail franchises.
Actually, broadband is a lot like the railways, and BT is (or was) a lot like British Rail. And when you really start looking for parallels, Openreach is a lot like Network Rail – both run the infrastructure over which other companies, such as TalkTalk or Great Western, run the traffic.
So yes, I’m sure a lot of purists and hardcore Corbynites would love to see Openreach brought into state hands, like Network Rail.
Yes, it could be done. Will it be? No.
For starters, it would require the state to compensate BT shareholders to the tune of a lot of money indeed.
Secondly, Network Rail is hardly a picture of success. Just listen to the Evening Standard’s Nick Goodway, who wrote on exactly this topic when defending BT after Grant Shapps’ ‘Broadbad’ report laid into the telco.
Goodway argued that ever since British Rail was privatised under John Major, it has been responsible for a number of major failures – such as the 2007 Grayrigg train crash – and has sucked up millions of pounds of taxpayer money. It would be unwise, he contends, to go down that route a second time.
I can’t say I disagree with him. Didn’t it used to take months on end to get the GPO to install a phone line? Given it still often seems to take Openreach a similar length of time, we hardly need the government getting involved. At least under the current model we have the illusion Openreach isn’t a monopoly.
So stand easy, though the idea is intriguing, nobody is going to be nationalising Openreach any time soon.
*Yes, yes, I know, but it’s a borderline accurate headline stat so we’re running with it.
**We all know they mean fibre-to-the-cabinet.
***Such as it is.