Has the latest BDUK Consultation been overtaken by 4G roll out?

BDUK gave five working days notice of its meeting today (7th October) to solicit “suggestions for how to deliver superfast broadband to some of the UK’s hardest to reach areas, including those options which might give communities an opportunity to shape local solutions”. It is also seeking “expressions of interest from potential prime contractors, consortia, sub-contractors or other interested parties in the broadband delivery supply chain who may be interested in responding to any subsequent procurement activity” and is also using the OJEU Notice as a mechanism “to identify as many suppliers as possible in this space”. Supplier views are requested by the end of October 2013 at the latest.

The notice was published on the day that Ed Vaizey and Owen Paterson attended a meeting in Manchester convened by the Countryside Alliance on Mobile Notspots. At that meeting Kip Meek said that EE was investing £1.5 billion on its 4G roll out and was on track to provide reach 98% of the UK by the end of 2014. He said the other mobile operators were making similar investments and he expected all to be offering 4G to 95% of the UK by the end of 2015. At the end of the meeting Ed Vaizey agreed to convene a meeting with the Countryside Alliance and others to review the situation on way leave charges and access routines for masts and cables. 

Meanwhile, on Friday it was announced that BT is giving a period of free sports access over Virgin Media, Sky and Freeview to boost take up of its sports offering; 45% of the current audience are Virgin Customers with a similar proportion customers of Sky – albeit most of the latter also have BT Broadband.  Meanwhile according to the latest Oxford Internet Institute Internet Survey , over half of us now access the Internet on the move: more than at work and school added together.

Given that Internet usage as whole appears to have plateaued, except for looking at photos (now up to 70% of users) and videos (now up to 50% of users), we can expect an infrastructure transformation as the mobile operators invest more in “fibre to the mast” than BT has invested in “fibre to the cabinet”: or rather than it has invested since its original “fibre to the premises” investment plans (1991 – 7) were knocked sideways by the Labour Government’s switch from the Conservative duopoly policy (competing services providing video to the home by 2002) to local loop unbundling (to save the bond-holders of the Cable Companies).

This makes BT’s decision to invade the content market, at the same time as others are invading its infrastructure market, all the more “interesting”. One thing is certain, if BT is allowed to use its infrastructure revenues to cross-subsidise its content business, instead of vice versa, we will all be the losers.  

I also fear that DCMS and BDUK have not learned much from their laboured interpretation and implementation of that which ministers announced after Rory Stewart’s Cumbria conference two years ago. The recent signing ceremony for Cumbria would probably have taken place over a year ago had officials done what the Minister originally announced, and left it to Local Authorities to implement. The latter were well experienced with issues of state aid and reasonably experienced with issues of telecoms procurement, unlike the consultants* the officials originally retained  when they realised they were out of their depth. Had that happened, on October the 2nd the Minister would have been able to celebrate the completion of the Cumbrian roll out instead of its start.

* My understanding (on which I have blogged before) is that in order to “save time”, DCMS officials used an Infrastructure UK framework contract and thus ended up with technical consultants and lawyers whose experience was in private sector construction procurement and who were available despite the demands of the Olympics. They then had to learn about telelcommunications and public sector procurement at the clients expense, time as well as money. A classic case of “marry in haste, repent at leisure”

Over the past year DMCS has improved the quality of its in-house team but so too have the local authorities, faced with the challenges of delivering services over the PSN with sharply reduced budgets. Meanwhile a mix of mobile and wireless operators scooped the DECC smart meter communications contracts to communicate with every property in the UK for rather less than BT was quoting. The ban on communications between DCMS and DECC officials appears to have been another self-inflicted wound. The time has surely come to compare notes: so too with the Department of Transport, under pressure from its Ministers to deliver effective on board mobile roaming and make better use of its communications network. 

That said, I am no longer confident that creating a merged infrastructure ministry (as I previously suggested) would necesarily lead to any improvement. It might be better to give county halls the power to force the various infrastructure operations to co-operate at the local operational level, e.g. the scheduling of construction and maintenance work or the organisation of joint public consultations. One of the most interesting presentations at the party conference was that from Ipsos Mori. We learned that the collapse of public confidence in politicians has been accompanied by a similar collapse of confidence in the silos of Whitehall. Is Local Government any more trusted? I doubt it – but local scandals and incompetance are usually less difficult to expose and fix than those in London or Brussels.