Midsomer Murders: the Broadband Killings - time for a remake

The Digital Manifesto call by the Mobile Network Operators “Failing to plan: Planning to Fail” highlights the impossibility of delivering the Labour promise of ubiquitous 5G cover by 2030 without reform of the planning system.  The Conservative failure to pledge more than best efforts reflects their reluctance (and that of the Libdems) to take on the rural NIMBYs for whose votes they are competing.

Will the new Government really give reform of the planning system the priority necessary to expedite infrastructure investment, from alternative energy (and standby power or pumped storage for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow) through robust, resilient networks to data centres, let alone millions of new homes?

If so, at what level in the new system will the trade-off between democracy (nimbyism) and autocracy (nanny knows best) take place?

The main change since I posted my original blog “Midsomer Murders: the Broadband Killings” in January 2013 is probably the transition from fixed and mobile mobile wireless through 3, 4 and 5G and the ubiquitous availability of Starlink and potential competitors.

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The feud turned to slaughter after Mavis Goodenough, the Wiccan High Priestess of Midsomer Harvest died of septicaemia after stepping on one of the mantraps protecting the poles of the overhead fibre link from the server in the Snug of the “Fig and Femto” to the wireless mast beside the changing hut at the Foggy Bottom playing fields.

The choice between cheap ubiquitous broadband today (with overhead spaghetti between cottages and femtos on every pole) and expensive, limited access, underground connectivity tomorrow had set wives against husbands and grandparents against grandchildren, less alone businessmen, farmers and sportsmen against tree-huggers, nimbies and the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England [see pages 42 and 47 of The Superfast and the Furious for the priorities between communications connectivity and preserving the environment by age, sex. location etc.].

Most felt the trouble began when the Cricket, Darts and Football teams allied with the Young Farmers and Golf Clubs to outvote the alliance of the Mothers Union, Age Concern and Friends of the Earth. The British Legion split and the Scouts were too young to vote. In consequence the Parish Council agreed to accept the bid from “Gigabit’s ‘R Us” to provide ubiquitous broadband (fixed and mobile) to the entire valley using overhead fibre and femtos for under a £million, instead of waiting two years for the opportunity to bid for a grant towards the cost of a £multi-million underground service under the post 2015 rural broadband upgrade framework.

The vicar tried to hold the peace but lost his credibility after it was discovered that Cawston Estates had paid for the bell tower of St Gabriel’s to be restored, including with the power supplies and wiring necessary to act as an MMDS hub. They also underwrote the estimates of take-up, in return for their business park on RAF Midsomer being covered by the service.

Inspector Barnaby’s wife, however, blamed the blogger who first suggested that Government should devolve planning decisions on broadband to local communities. It was not as though he did not know what he doing.

The presentation meeting on Thursday for the Policy Exchange study, The Superfast and Furious, was lively and informative. Ed Vaizey was well-informed as well as witty. I was delighted that Chris Yiu covered the concerns raised in my critique of the report . Dido Harding (Talk Talk) made some excellent points on the need for effective competition if we are to expect market forces to deliver. Steve Unger set me wondering whether I need to eat my words regarding some of the my criticisms of Ofcom. Do watch the video.

I was, however, struck by the myopic tunnel vision of some of the audience – evidenced either by their questions or in discussion afterwards.

Some thought Dido Harding was absurd in envisioning a world where it is as easy to change broadband suppliers as it is to change supermarket. I do not think that is any more absurd than a world in which it appears to be easier to change supplier than to get service.

Some had no grasp of the demands generated by teenagers using video-enabled smartphones for social networking or of the needs of the two million SMEs who employ 40% of the private sector workforce for symmetric connectivity, if they are to use the Internet to do business on-line without have to “give away” between 30 and 70% of the gross to a mix of  advertising, hosting and transaction processing operations (many based outside the UK) while not receiving the support or protection (e.g. against fraud or impersonation) they might reasonably expect in return.

Some had no grasp of the political consequences of the nature of the split between those who give priority to broadband connectivity (the young, men and business) and those who oppose overhead lines and fear radio masts (the old and women). They thought that tweaking planning regulations to exempt equipment below a given visual impact or “power” will be “the answer”.

I said at the time that I saw the plot for a Midsomer Murder story. Hence first half of this entry.

I also realised that I need to qualify my criticism of New Labour and Ofcom for dropping duopoly in favour of promoting local loop unbundling. The Cable Companies were heading for bankrupcy when they did so. It can therefore be argued that the duopoly was already all but dead. They therefore preserved “competition”, albeit at the cost of halting BT’s fibre roll out and delaying the provision of broadcast quality video to most of the UK by over a decade.

Current policy appears to be based on a re-creation of duopoly (BT and Virgin) for long after the period when the policies on which I worked in the 1980s assumed we would have made the transition to full competition (aided by falling costs and ubiquitous wireless) across most of the UK. Tomorrow I plan to blog on why I do not think this is a good idea and why I support Dido Harding’s vision of a world in which it is as easy to switch your spend between communications suppliers just as you do between the supermarkets in which you shop. [that is unless another topic gets in the way – or I “get a life” instead].

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