Messages from the House of Commons Broadband Notspot Debate: over 40 MPs contributing

During the run up to the Party Conferences I was asked whether BT’s recent messages about using “community partnerships” to deliver broadband to “hard to reach ” areas marked a change of heart, or were just to defuse criticism in advance of the party conferences and a series of select committee enquiries. I said that I hoped they reflected a genuine change of heart – because it is in the interests of both BT shareholders and the UK as a whole for BT to move from confrontation to co-operation (or rather co-opetition) in rebuilding the UK’s communications infrastructures so that they are fit for the 21st century.

In the event, BT received a serious kicking at the Party Conferences. At one fringe meeting the chairman had to intervene when BT’s Head of Infrastructure Delivery was accused of lying by a County Councillor who had chapter and verse on its use of state aid to overbuild a smaller community-based competitor in the area she represented. Whether or not the BT response was genuine, the exchange was evidence that it has serious communications (different sense of the word) problems either internally, or with councilors, or both..

The MPs speaking in the debate earlier this week were far more polite, perhaps because most do not believe their voters can be better served without the active co-operation of BT. They are correct. Almost all of BT’s rivals depend on its services (Wholesale, not just Openreach) at some of the nation’s communication choke points. However, it is often forgotten that BT is, in turn, critically dependent on services provided by its rivals at other choke points. Hence some of the confused and confusing arguments about mutual access. We need a much better informed and more granular debate over infrastructure competition issues – to encourage investment in robust and resilient bypasses round those choke points. The result should be to remove the critical dependence on BT but we also need to ensure that this is replaced by competition and choice, not other dependencies. 

Most networks, including those of BT, are built by third parties who provide infrastructure services but do not sell direct to consumers. For example BT has long contracted most of its construction to Carillion to which it recently awarded a major extension contract at the expense of Morrison Utilities . This resulted in the latter offering its capacity to others. During the run-up to Y2K I learned that Balfour Beatty and GEC Marconi had the best maps of BT’s infrastructure, because of what they had built, supplied and maintained. BT’s other suppliers had similar maps. That situation had not greatly changed when the BDUK contracts were being negotiated. Hence the genuine problems BT has had with predicting which post codes, let alone which premises, would receive what services as a result of state-aided upgrades. An interesting side effect is that, Sky, which now owns what were formerly the Marconi network operations (including the British Waterways Board wayleaves), may still have better maps of parts of BT’s network  than BT! 

The MPs, however, concentrated on symptoms not causes.

I took seven messages from reading the transcript of the debate on Monday.

  • MPs feel that Broadband is the fourth utility and is important to their re-election prospects. Over forty 40 MPs wished to speak. All had stories of the problems faced by their voters, beginning with Matt Warman MP who opened the debate. Most of the subsequent speakers have postbags and inboxes bursting with complaints about delays and poor service and many have already held their own local “summits”..

 

  • The problems are urban as well as rural and cripple the competitiveness of many businesses. The debate attracted a full cross section of MPs from Mark Field (Conservative) and Karen Buck (Labour) for London and Westminster, through MPs for new towns like Telford (Lucy Allan), to  Neil Parish (Tiverton and Chairman of the DEFRA Select Committee|), Albert Owen (Ynys Mon, Labour), Patricia Gibson (North Aryshire and Arran, SNP) and Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde, SNP) who contrasted the plight of Scottish communities with their peers in Sweden.

  • The digital divide is deepening, albeit not necessarily widening: with prices (including the mandatory land line) rising sharply in recent years (Julie Cooper, Burnley) and improvements in one village directly affecting service to another (Victoria Atkins quoted a service dropping from 1.5 mbps to .34 after the next village was upgraded). Caroline Nokes (Romsey) even talked of contractors disconnecting one resident in order to serve another.

  • It is dividing communities such as Ightham, in Tom Tugendhat’s constituency or parts of the South Downs in that of Nick Herbert. Many others made similar points but Nick also raised the diversion of BT investment funds to EE and Sport (which cannot be accessed by those without good broadband). Jesse Norman (Hereford and chairman of the DCMS Select Committee similarly questioned whether Openreach was being starved of Capital. 

  • Effective action can also be locally divisive. Simon Hoare, Rishi Sunak and James Cartlidge raised the way that listed buildings and planning consent can get in the way of service improvement. James described how the residents of a beautiful notspot had been told they would not be served for “commercial reasons”, when the reason was that a farmer had withdrawn consent for a mast after pressure from his neighbours. I covered this problem, and the side effects of my proposed solution, some years ago in my blog on the  Midsomer Broadband Murders.

  • Competitors to BT can provide better solutions to isolated communities and businesses at lower cost but BT co-operation is often essential. Stuart Blair Donaldson (West Aberdeen) talked of BT sending contractors on a six hour trip from Glasgow to do a ten minute job. Richard Drax (South Dorset) talked of BT wanting to charge £100,000 for nine connections to serve a £2.5 million lottery funded tourist project which will be provided for £99 a month by sharing a competitor’s service. Victoria Atkins (Louth) gave an example of competitor to BT charging £3000 for a 100 mbps service for which BT had quoted £120,000.

There was, however, disagreement as to whether the answer was to co-operate with BT or to encourage its competitors. George Kerevan (SNP, East Lothian) thanked Ed Vaizey for attending the debate before comparing the timescale for deployment with that for winning World War 2 and blamed BT Openreach. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Conservative), said we should get a move on, councils should make the best of a bad job and give their wallets to BT to speed things up. Jake Berry (Rossendale) also hoped that working with BT would speed up the process of addressing his voters needs. Meanwhile one of Ian’s Somerset colleagues, James Heappey, questioned whether BT fibre to the cabinet was the right model at all.

  • The opposition does not intend to support/defend the re-monopolisation of BT, whether via Openreach or otherwise. Stephen Timms and Chi Owurah questioned the value for money of the BDUK UK contracts, unless the small print of claw back is effectively enforced. They will also clearly enjoy embarrassing Ed Vaizey if he is unable to ensure effective action against anti-competitive behaviour on the part of BT. 
  • The final message is implicit rather than explicit, Those who wish to see better broadband for the communities they serve (or live or do business in) should work together to provide better information on the choices available to MPs planning local “summits” with their local councils and voters. They should not wait for the “National Notspot Summit” that may be called as a result of this debate.

As readers will know, I have blogged on this theme several times before and was delighted to be invited, at the Conservative Party Conference party, to draft a mailshot to help identify those Councils and Councillors who might be interested in pooling their experience to help produce practical guidance and relevant case studies.  I expect to be in a position to blog on that exercise next week but look forward to hearing from readers who would like to help.

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