How vulnerable is your broadband? Why BT and Virgin should be referred to Competition Commission

I am a happy customer for BT Infinity but have no intention of scrapping the Sky Subscription that I took out when my Cable TV service failed shortly before Christmas (some years ago) and nobody fixed it. A recent BBC news article on the effects of a recent copper theft in Oldham illustrates why. It is much harder to nick a satellite. Also the picture quality is better.

Last year I dropped my unbundled landline provider (acting as standby after I got Infinity) when their service failed. I decided that the hassle of getting it fixed (blagging my way through a call centre until they finally agreed to pay for an Openreach engineer to call) was not worth the extra resilience (it runs along the same ducts to the same exchange) but I still have a Virgin phone as my public number (its the one via which all the offers from Microsoft to fix my internet problems come), plus two mobile services (their services have different not spots). I plan to use the latter as standby in the event of problems with Infinity.

I have long been a believer in multiple sourcing.

It is also the “real” reason why I believe BT and Virgin should have been referred by Ofcom to the Monopolies Commission immediately  after their behaviour over the Birmingham attempt to create a world class infrastucture. The planned dark fibre service would have been open to all comers to offer their network services, but if I ran a business in the Jewelry Quarter or Digbeth I would probably want a wireless standby were BT and Virgin to move their local services across. Even, so the attempt to block competition in the provision of affordable business circuits really does merit investigation because wireless is not yet capable of bandling high capacity, two way, business quality broadand.

In that context the abandonment of  Government plans to support new inner city broadband infrastructure investment in favour of vouchers for SMEs to buy that which is already available from BT and Virgin (albeit perhaps via resellers) is unalloyed bad news. Given that capitulation, the extra £250 million just announced will almost certainly fail to stimulate additional investment. Meanwhile I have heard disturbing rumours as to why the challenge to BDUK for the provision of state aid to enable BT to wipe out alternative rural broadband suppliers was dropped – and of the betrayal the followed.

I wonder how much of this, if any, will surface when the DCMS select committee questions Ofcom on its annual plan next Tuesday . I have blogged on the need for Ofcom to take its role as a competition regulator more seriously before. It will be interesting to see how many of those seeking to input to the National Audit Office enquiry into whether BDUK gives value for money have also input to the DCMS Select Committee review of Ofcom’s forward plans and how these relate to its objectives. That raises, of course, the question of what Ofcom was created to do, whether those are still its objectives and whether they are still the right objectives. Having helped organise the scrutiny process for the legislation, I remember the inconclusive debate over its role vis a vis the supply of communications services to business.  We are now seeing the consequences.   

Meanwhile the case for a Competition Commission review into the supply of “leased lines” and Business Broadband may be be even stronger than that for re-opening the conditional State Aid exemption given to BDUK. 

P.S. I note that Vodafone has just won a contract to build a new network for public sector use in the Irish Republic. Recalling how the Cable & Wireless operations now owned by Vodafone, were driven out of the bidding for the BDUK framework, perhaps the time has come for UK local authorities to be allowed a greater choice than “BT or lose the DCMS/DEFRA etc. funding”.