More bottlenecks than a brewery: the UK Broadband Network

I was digging in Grimpen Mire this morning when a ray of sunlight pierced the fog. The BIS Select Committee Broadband Report make excellent reading. Its recommendations should form part of the election manifestos of both Government and Opposition. But the UK communications infrastructure has stagnated since local loop unbundling ended BT’s gallop to bring fibre to most of the country. 

Unbundling has brought us cheaper broadband than most of our overseas competitors but it has also left us with slower broadband. We are in the bottom third of the OECD tables for both price and speed. That which we have is slowing down, as data volumes rise (teenagers swapping photo and video clips while those without Sky use i-player to time-shift TV) faster than transmission speeds. The effects of contention and latency are then compounded by bottlenecks further back, forcing the ISP to ration download volumes. Meanwhile uploading can be painfully slow for anything beyond simple text. I have still not been forgiven for sending out an e-mail with a 27 meg attachment 

I have been told the reason commuters access the Internet during the day is that their office connections are faster than at home because City centre firms use leased lines running over fibre. It is apparently different in the public sector. Most Government offices (outside the major complexes in London or the North) are still served by copper.  I have also been told that the “maps” being supplier by consultants as “authoritative sources” on current networks are as seriously flawed as those which failed to inform the MoD that all its routings for the North West passed through the same bomb-proof duct in Manchester. They discovered this when it overheated and a cable fire a few years ago.  

In this context some of the comments of the Select Committee on Next Generation Access make more sense. None of the infrastructure providers is currently making a net profit from  providing current generation broadband. The business case for further infrastructure investment, even before business rates, is therefore suspect – except for those who make their money from Internet Advertising. Hence Google’s plans in the US to enter the infrastucture market.   

So what should be the role of Government and Regulator?

The first, after implementing the recommendations of the select committee, should be ensure that those who invest in bottleneck removal, whether incumbent or rival, should be able to reap a reward in the market,

The second should be to ensure that some-one, whether it be under the aegis of Ofcom,  CPNI or a trusted third party, produces adequate maps of the state of the infrastructure and provides a service for those whose business plans, like those for the G-Cloud, depend on knowing what capacity (and resilience) really is available (and where) from their supplier(s) – before it fails on them after fire.flood or storm – or even simple overload.

The third …. at the moment I am minded to settle for just two …. but I am still digging tentative test holes to see whether it might be possible to drain Grimpen Mire.