Are Whitehall (DCMS) and Southwark (Ofcom) on the same broadband planet as Wapping and Smithfield?

One of the highlights of last week’s Parliament and The Internet Conference was the Two Eds Show, Ed Vaizey (as Minister) and Ed Richards (as Regulator) were chaired by John Whittingdale (Chairman of the DCMS Select Committee). Luckily there were no members of INCA in the audience to spoil the harmony by asking pointed questions on some of the issues raised by the National Audit Office or the Public Accounts committee. I did, however, agree with their comments that some of the slides displayed in earlier in the course of the day were bizarre.

One of the oddest was when Paul Timmers appeared to compare 250 network operators and 28 regulatory frameworks in the EU with 3 “major networks” and 1 framework in the US as though this supported a case for the Commission help bring about rationalisation. Each of the 50 “sovereign states” of the USA  each have their own regulatory frameworks, kept busy coping with the abuses and turf wars of local monopoly telcos, cable companies, energy utilities, broadcasters and Internet service providers invading each others markets. It is true that the States share barely a dozen trans-continental networks (communications and content) but they spend as much of their time battling the ambitions of the Federal Communications Commission and other Washington based agencies as the European  PTT Ministers and Regulators spend battling Brussels.

There are many lessons that we could and should learn from the Americans but “regulatory rationalisation” in order to promote a cartel of converged suppliers is not one of them.

Some of the claims quoted from the recent Ofcom Communications Infrastructure Report were, however, equally bizarre. One obvious example is that “superfast broadband networks” supporting “download speeds of at least 30 M/bits/s” are “now available to 73% of UK premises”. I am not quite sure what “available” means – or how the data massaged into “dash boards” and sound bites, will help enable rational decisions on how to stimulate investment in providing universal access to communications networks that are fit for the needs of the 21st century.

We need publicly available, post code level, maps of actual speeds and quality of service, based on the rolling line tests carried out by all network operators as part of routine performance monitoring and trouble shooting. I fail to understand why access to such data is not routinely demanded by regulators from all those with dominant market positions (particularly those bidding for contracts which involve state aid) and made available to enable government (local as well as central), potential investors (including landlords and property developers) and those deciding where to live or base their business operations, to make better informed choices.

In the mean time I will use data from some of the publicly available websites to compare the position of that well known rural area, Smithfield ,with Southwark (home of London’s entertainment industry from Ned Alleyn’s Stews to Ofcom) and also take a look at Shoreditch, where I get contrasting stories from those who live in the Tech City complex itself and those trying to grow multi-media businesses in more affordable accommodation nearby. . 

Southwark has fibre to the cabinet and supposed headline speeds of “up to 76mbs” although the delivered average is 18mbs and only one postcode and only one supplier (Vodafone!) actually delivers an average of over 30 mbs. By contrast there are still no plans to provide fibre to the cabinet to any of the exchanges (Fleet, Faraday, Wood Street etc.) round Smithfield London: unlike Smithfield Birmingham where speeds now average 24mbs,

Meanwhile FTTC is available only to parts of Shoreditch” (i.e. EC2A, the Tech City complex itself, where BT customers get an average of 47 mbs). The rest gets an average of 11 Mbps, although Talk Talk customers in E2 do rather better, with an average just over 30.

I also compared Whitehall with Wapping, where current speeds avarage 5 mbps. I am pleased to say that Wapping is now due to received BT Infinity the end of the year.

Of course infrastructure speed is not the only factor. Even though I am a happy customer of BT Infinity, which often runs at 74mbs down and 14 mbs up, I still get frustrated with the slow response times caused by advertising or security bloatware or by clogged websites in areas which do not enjoy fibre access. I am not at all surprised by the evidence that customers who wait more than 7 seconds are more likely to abandon transactions than complete them. I also note that players concerned about customer experience increasingly test this over all the access channels likely to be used by their target audiences, including over the slow and unreliable services common in parts of Africa – as well as rather too many parts of the UK.      
Meanwhile, I am lucky enough not to have to be paranoid about price. Instead I worry about resilience and quality of service, particularly response to problems. I therefore aim to dual source all services on which I am critically reliant. That is why I regarded Local Loop Unbundling (alias the regulated resale of a monopoly services) as a dangerous step backwards from competition in providing local loops. That said, I have yet to have dealings with an Openreach engineer whose competance I did not respect – unlike the landline competitor I used for standby before switching to a mix of Sky and Mobile.

There was a lot more meat at the Parliament and the Internet Conference but my conclusion is that we have a long way to go before we have a coherant policy framework for ensuring that the UK communications infrastucture is fit for the needs of the 21st Century. More-over, some of the current complacency over the progress to date and that likely over the year or so sticks in my craw . If we are serious about economic recovery and social inclusion we need to see services as good my BT Infinity connection (74 mbps down and 14 mbps up) available to 99% of the population, via competing fixed and mobile services to which local access cannot be removed by the same lightning strike or JCB operator.

But servies like BT Infinity are being overtaken around the world, as well as in the UK, as equipment costs plummet. By the time I am in my dotage, surrounded by 24 by 7 telemedicine and telecare monitors and devices, I will need at least as much “personal bandwidth” as the teenagers of today – operating smart phones and gaming equipment at the same time as watching TV and doing homework.