Is the BT Business Broadband monopoly about to crumble? How will it respond?

I recently blogged on the demand aggregation exercise being organised by the City of London  A couple of days later I received a note on the current state of INCA plans in response to the recent Federation of Small Business report on how small businesses are often left out of the national superfast broadband rollout.

INCA membership has grown rapidly over the past year and now includes those ready, willing and able to provide high speed broadband services in areas that BT deems commercially unviable, provided a critical mass of businesses want the fast, symmetric, low cost access they can provide.  INCA has therefore teamed up with the Federation of Communications Services to develop a network of projects in enterprise zones and business parks around the country.

The first project to go live was not in a deeply rural area, but in the heart of Shoreditch, London (need door to Smithfield, still sloughed with rural crapband). The Perseverance Works, home to 90 SMEs, has just contracted a project with Fibre Options to deliver gigabit broadband speeds for a fraction of the price charged by BT for a ‘leased line’, the only high speed broadband alternative available to them (Infinity is not available in the City of London because …) .
INCA members like CityFibre, with a range of ‘Gigabit City’ projects (beginning with York, Coventry and Peterborough), aim to cover all premises in their area, including all the local businesses. Other INCA members like MLL TelecomITS Technology Group, Gigaclear
and Hyperoptic have developed high speed services, using fibre and wireless technologies, specifically to fill the business park gaps left by BT. The City Fibre interchange arrangements with Sky and Talk Talk being piloted in York and the interconnection services offered by Fluidata and others mean that the pieces are now in place for consumers to benefit from investment in local networks where the return is underpinned by business demand. 
The movement in the market also means that a growing number of fund managers are looking at the opportunities now that business contracts mean fibre networks can be assessed as utility leasing deals rather than risk investments. The tragedy is that BT and Virgin appear trapped in a price war with Sky which they cannot win and therefore lack the funds to compete. That situation will get worse as BT’s leased line monopoly comes under growing threat and the mobile operators improve the availability of ubiquitous (i.e. mix of fibre, wifi and mobile) 4G, eating further into traditional telecoms revenues.

Where does that leave government policy. The good news is that local authorities, both urban and rural are beginning to use the new generation of BDUK schemes (from vouchers to bids for innovation funding) to break out of the straightjacket framework about which I have been so rude in the past. 

The bad news is that not all have been successful – in some cities lack of engagement with local business and lack of publicity for voucher schemes means that the take up has been pathetic. In others, the rush to contract has let them to ignore industry advice (e.g. warnings about the Gowex business model over a year ago) and fall for superficially attractive exclusive deals which appear to bar mainstream UK wifi services from their city centres.

This does not, however, mean that the reimposition of central planning would provide other than uniform mediocrity. Provided the use of international inter-operability standards, (not just the subset used in the BDUK contract with BT) is mandated the way will be open for new players to seamlessly take over the operations of those that fail – unlike the Digital Region which will need to be reworked after its purchase from bankruptcy by Geo.

There are a many business groups now lobbying for action on business broadband, in addition to those representing  areas (inner city as well as rural) where investment in 21st century communications infrastructures is unlikely unless councils add in their own communications infrastructure and service budgets. As vice- chairman policy studies for the Conservative Technology Forum, I would find it most helpful if more of the players were to come together via the Digital Policy Alliance with a view to putting the same arguments to all parties – so that we can work out where we differ on fundamentals as opposed to bells and whistles.

That would encourage and enable officials to bring forward those actions on which we are in violent agreement to before the next election – thus saving over a year.

I should add that even the argument as to whether it is better to rely on market forces (including local municipal enterprise) or on central planning (including the role of Ofcom as more than a competition and standards regulator) appears to lead to splits within the parties rather than between them and need not delay practical progress within existing policy frameworks.

However, what is helpful to me is less important than what is helpful to the next generation and to the one after that who will have to live the mess we will make of the future of the UK if we try to second guess the future and are wrong. Hence my lack of faith in the Government, even if advised by me, picking winners.