Broadband at the Party Conferences: why it matters

Without a surge of investment in “future ready” fibre and wireless networks next spring, the UK will fall behind France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain, let alone Scandinavia and the Pacific Rim before the Brexit negotiations are complete.  If so, Brexit might indeed be the disaster the Remoaners claim.  By contrast we could leapfrog the rest of Europe and even much of the United States  into the future.  But that needs co-operation between those who want to see investment in bypassing the bottlenecks currently throttling the communications of the high tech and multi-media businesses of the future.

I have just taken a look at the technology event listings for the party conferences.  The Conservative Technology Forum event on a Post Brexit Broadband Policy was organised to late to be included (the content and speaker line up are being finalised tomorrow). There are events on Smart Cities, Big Data (both medical and consumer), the effect of technology on employment (rehashing the arguments of the late 1970s and early 1980s) and Social Inclusion (both urban and rural). There are also many events on skills.  I could find only three, all at the Conservative Party Conference, on the need to expedite communications infrastructure investment.

Why is Britain’s Broadband Broken?

On Sunday 2nd October Res Publica is looking at “Why is Britain’s broadband broken? How digital infrastructure competition will deliver a brighter future” with two members of the Culture Media and Sport Committee and Mark Collins of City Fibre (who are doing more to create Smart Cities than anyone else). That meeting is expected to feature material from the INCA Gigabit Britain Report  That report is particularly interesting because it is co-sponsored by Vodafone and Sky as well as Relish (whose owners also own 3 and Hongkong Telecom), City Fibre, Hyperoptic and Warwicknet. More-over the latest supplier to join INCA is Huawei. It looks as though a post Brexit UK might well be very attractive to inward investors  provided we do indeed have a market that is open to competition.

Towards a post-Brexit Strategy for Gigabit Britain 

Hence the theme of the Conservative Technology Forum meeting “Towards a post- Brexit Strategy for Gigabit Britain – Building the Infrastructure for a Smart Society: 16.30 – 18.30, 3rd October IET Austin Court.  (note that is outside the Security Zone so those without conference passes can attend). This builds on the outputs from a series of meetings looking at why London is so badly served with fixed and mobile communications and how to help pull through new investment, despite the desire of the incumbent to preserve its leased line revenue from competition. Those meetings ere organised by a variety of players, most either all-party or non-partisan. They led to a partial breakthrough when property owners and network operators came together under the aegis of the City of London to agree a common toolkit for access and wayleave arrangements.

Some of the participants have since been looking at how to extend that spirit of co-operation to cover mobile communications, the rest of the UK  and some of the other barriers to investment. Most of the actions are non-partisan and the CTF event is an occasion for network operators, property owners and technology suppliers to describe how they would like to work together and with local authorities to remove the obstacles to allowing market forces to work.

The discussion chaired by Kit Malthouse MP (Parliamentary Chairman, Digital Infrastructure, CTF) will begin (at 17.00) with short presentations of plans for cooperation to address:

  • The Electronic Communications Code and Access and Wayleave arrangements
  • Introducing competition to backhaul and maintenance
  • Introducing certainty and fairness to business rates
  • Helping local government identify, publicise and build on success

There will then be a response from Mims Davies MP, PPS to Matt Hancock MP, Minister of State for Digital Policy, DCMS

Forming coalitions of the willing

There has been controversy and confrontation over the reform of the Electronic Communications Code. But happily many of the key players are coming together to help the Ofcom attempt to produce a code of practice. The potential for co-operation goes much wider, however, from common processes that enable access and wayleaves to be agreed inside days, not months (and in some cases years) through an open commercial market for re-use to Victorian style co-partnerships

Debate commonly  focuses on competition in the local loop but that is not the only monopoly. A variety of technologies might be used, including by BT to wind up speeds over current networks but their use is constrained by backhaul capacity. Is the problem best addressed by a USO for backhaul or by competition. And, if the answer is “both”,  surely we need a better concept than USO for the means of ensuring that all have access to services that are fit for the evolving needs of the 21st Century The Openreach maintenance monopoly can also be a serious constraint, particularly on those wishing to compete on quality of service, not just price.

Kit Malthouse spoke during the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill on the need to reform business rates. Proposals are being worked up for a brief for use during the Committee Stage of the Bill starting on the 11th.

Creating world-class smart communities

There are a number of events at each of the party conference under the banner of “smart cities”. Most are concerned with the devolution of powers from Whitehall. That is only part of the need. Most of Britain’s Canals and Railways were organised by consortia of landowners, property developers and businessmen working in co-operation via local authorities. “Coalitions of the willing” can move much faster than politicians and government can plan and mandate.  Such coalitions also require mutual understanding of each others objectives, motivations and constraints. The BEREC report on the “Challengers and Drivers of NGA rollout” indicates clearly that investment correlates with competition. Competition between would-be Smart Cities for jobs of the future might be the best way of helping the whole of Britain, not just a handful of Cities, get ahead and stay there. But how do we help councils justify the effort at a time when a efforts are focussed on making 30% savings without impacting services? The answer has to include publicity for examples where savings of 50% and more have been achieved, without up front investment, by the imaginative and shared use of mobile communications accessing cloud-based services. That is surprisingly difficult because the most spectacular savings involve bottom up incremental initiatives which made little or no money for the major suppliers who might be expected to sponsor the relevant awards ceremonies.

Why Fibre is Good for You

On the 4th October, 13.30 – 14.30 the Centre for Policy Studies has a meeting on Why Fibre is Good for you, with Sky, Vodafone, the Institute of Directors and Matt Hancock . I look forward to a robust call for a policy that meets the need of business and a response from the minister. Interestingly both Sky and Vodafone have good business cases for helping publicise imaginative, incremental exercises by councils to use a mix of fibre and wireless to delver more and better for less.

Then comes the need to deliver.

I am hopeful that the meeting tomorrow to go firm on the content for  the CTF meeting will also confirm the formation of teams willing to work together on an all-party basis to help delivering what they propose. A meeting of the all-party Digital Policy Alliance has been scheduled, in Westminster for day after the committee state of the Digital Economy Bill is due to end, 25th October, to put the issues into the context of the digital infrastructure needed for a smart society, with an initial portfolio of short term projects  for delivery by the start of the new year. That will, hopefully, give confidence that co-operation works better than compulsion.