What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again

The other day, the government announced yet another consultation on the future of the UK’s digital networking infrastructure, this time exploring the possibility of liberalising the planning laws to make it cheaper and easier for operators to deploy taller mobile masts and roll-out their 5G networks faster and cheaper.

As I prepare to move on to a new challenge at Computer Weekly, after five years of covering the UK’s broadband and mobile network roll-out, I was struck by the words of digital minister Nicky Morgan, who said; “The British countryside has always been a hotbed of pioneering industries and we’re making sure our rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age.

“We’re investing millions so the whole country can grasp the opportunities and economic benefits of next-generation 5G technology.

“In modern Britain, people expect to be connected wherever they are. And so we’re committed to securing widespread mobile coverage and must make sure we have the right planning laws to give the UK the best infrastructure to stay ahead.”

Setting aside the fact that the quote was clearly written by a DCMS staffer, Morgan’s ‘words’ strike me as vaguely familiar ones.

In March 2016, the government launched a consultation on proposals for a 10Mbps broadband universal service obligation (USO) – something that ultimately did come to fruition.

The then digital minister, Ed Vaizey, said: “This government has a clear digital agenda, and our ambition is for world-class digital connectivity at ultrafast speeds. As the country continues to take great strides towards ever better connectivity, a broadband USO will help ensure that no-one is left behind – a digital safety net for all.

“The benefits of greater connectivity are shared throughout communities, including by supporting small businesses to get online, compete and grow.”

Digital ministers come and go, I’ve seen off several in my time as networking editor – Ed Vaizey, Matt Hancock, Margot James – and they have all talked about “economic opportunities”, “digital safety nets” and the “left behind”.

Now, I don’t want to suggest for one minute that ultrafast broadband and mobile networks don’t present economic opportunities. They do. I don’t dispute that the digital society needs digital safety nets for the excluded. It does. I don’t believe the needs of the left behind should be ignored. They should not.

Back in 2014, the controversial Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) programme and the 4G roll-out were getting into their stride. In 2019, BDUK is evolving at last towards fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) services and the 5G roll-out is beginning. The parallels are clear to see.

The technology may be more advanced, but the fundamental conversations and the basic story line have not changed. Faster networks are always just around the corner.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

I speak as a hardened cynic, but despite this I think there are reasons to be optimistic, and as I bid farewell to my broadband and mobile brief and prepare to take over as security editor, I feel as if we may, at long last, be turning a corner.

Openreach, long the bête noire of the broadband industry, has had a Damascene road conversion to FTTP, and a so-called ultrafast broadband service is now in reach of over 50% of UK homes. Meanwhile, the potential of 5G to act as more than a mobile network, maybe even one day to supersede FTTP entirely, holds great promise in my opinion.

The path is a long one and the story will run and run, but on balance I am satisfied that things are moving in the right direction.

Of course, I write this with some trepidation, as the prospect of a disastrous No Deal Brexit seems closer than ever, and much will depend on how both the industry, and the government, respond to this challenge. Nevertheless, I will keep watching the story with interest, and I challenge you all to move the conversation on.

Good luck, it has been a pleasure.

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