City of London to bulldoze broadband blockages while Vodafone parks tanks on BT's lawn

The Corporation of the City of London has just voted to publicise and build on their surveys of local broadband supply and demand  with a two stage project. The first stage is to identify the range of solutions that are available and to map demand for fibre broadband, building by building, in the Square Mile. The stated aim in the press releases is to use “this information to ‘nudge’ fibre suppliers into providing connections that SMEs can afford”.

The second stage is to address growing complaints over mobile and wifi cover with a major  upgrade to wireless voice and data services, using City Corporation street furniture and buildings for extra masts and connections.

Mark Boleat, Policy Chairman of the City of London Corporation that looks after the Square Mile business district, said: ‘The 13,500 SMEs in the Square Mile employ many people, are vital energisers of the business environment and need the right tools to deliver productivity both in the City and the adjoining areas that are fostering growth. This project will help close the digital divide by putting  superfast broadband within reach of far more of our vital SMEs, and help residents and visitors, too.

The City of London Corporation, the elected body which runs the global business hub around St Paul’s, has been pushing hard to improve connectivity for SMEs who can’t afford the £500 a month needed for a big-league business connection, and for its 8,000 residents. Both the building-by-building fibre survey of the Square Mile and a tender for a wireless service will begin in January 2015.

The Square Mile is behind others, including its traditional rival the City of Westminster, when it  comes to using its street furniture and building to help pull through upgrades to mobile and wifi cover. However, it looks to be in the lead when it comes to organising a building by building survey with the aim of helping alternative network providers create a genuinely competitive business broadband market.

The Corporation may not be alone in this for long. The Countryside Alliance plans to work with the Actual Experience BBfix project  to identify not only the services actually received in rural areas but also some of the reasons for poor performance. When I first heard of their plans I thought, “why do we need another mapping exercise?”.

I then drilled down into the detail of the maps currently available and what they measure and reflected on discussion at the launch of the Broadband Stakeholder Group report on “Out of Home Usage”  and took a look at how the different “maps” illustrate the supposed broadband and mobile cover across the constituency of Rochester and Strood, a BT near monopoly  serving a UKIP stronghold (rather like Clacton in fact). The picture they give is remarkably rosy compared to the reality found by politicians and party workers as they canvas the area.

The twin approaches of building by building surveys and measurements of actual experience, not just nominal speeds, could help blow apart cosy debate over what we do, or do not need, and help enable market forces to compensate for regulatory failure. Then came the press cover for the announcements from Vodafone, now that it has sorted out the national backhaul network that it acquired from Cable and Wireless.

I suspect the reality is rather different.The headlines are about Vodafone doing deals with BT and others for local access and content, leading to head-to-head competition between BT, Virgin, Sky and Talk in the quad play market. According to investment analysts like those at Redburn, BT’s capital spend is falling, not rising and it has neither the funding nor the incentive to invest in both infrastructure and content. Meanwhile Virgin is extending its local reach and Sky and Talk Talk are exploring connectivity deals with alternative network providers.

The Vodafone announcements might be better seen as a very public warning to BT to stop planning to re-enter the mobile market via wifi and instead to include them within upgraded Openreach services as a shared utility for all to use. Meanwhile Vodafone is well positioned to not only reduce what it pays to BT for backhaul but offer services to BT’s competitors, local alternative network providers and business users. It will be interesting to see it offers next spring to those in the Cities of London and Westminster as well as to those whose local fibre plans are constrained by the availability of affordable backhaul (see page 4 of the BSG “Out of home experience” report. Will it also seek to take a lead in providing seamless local, national and pan-european roaming to business customers, whether or not it is compelled to do so by regulators?  Is this part of its positioning for the world of smart cars, buildings, cities and infrastructures ?

The UK broadband market, including the future of digital infrastructure investment, just became much more interesting.