Political uncertainty is the biggest barrier to creating a UK broadband infrastructure

How many times a day, week, month or year would you be dead if your Internet connection was your life support system. I have been aware of only two hiccups on my BT Infinity Service since it went live a couple of years ago (one was fixed with a simple router reboot, I blogged a couple of days ago on the second). But my e-mail, search engine and browser services regularly stop for long enough for me to be dead if my life depended on them. It is usually because their fights with my security software have reached stalemate and I have to reboot the system in order the clear the blockage. Meanwhile one of those with whom I work, who lives in a rural area, has just apologised for a late response after a ten hour outage last night

 The round table that I chaired last Friday to help drum up responses to the DCIS consultation on communications infrastructure strategy went even better than I had hoped. We had participants from BCS, C&G, CLA, FCS, FISP, FSB, INCA, ISOC-UK, INTUG, the LEP Network, NEN, PSNGB and TechUK as well as a number of major suppliers and users representing themselves. There was agreement on the need for three or four messages to explain to politicians why they need to provide the political and regulatory certainty that will enable investors to bring investment decisions forward to before the election purdah next year. The meeting report is available on the DPA website http://dpalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/20140912_DPA-Comm-Infra-Meeting-Report.pdf and several of the agreed follow up groups have already started work. PLease do not feel excluded. If you wish to participate and are not active in one of the groups listed above please visit the mebmership page of their website and e-mail for details of how to participate via the DPA.

 I was on best behaviour on the 12th and the meeting report reflects the collective views of the meeting, not my own. That said, the only significant area of difference is that I believe we need to spell out the consequences of regarding communications as a critical utility on which 21st century life depends. I should, however, be honest. The importance of this only dawned on me as I read the some of the sub-group e-mail trails after the meeting. These put flesh on the implications of some of the headline discussions as the volunteers discussed how to handle, for exmaple, the multl-headed hydra that is open inter-operability. .

The current lack of clarity helps explain why current debate can polarise between those who claim our communications infrastructure is creaking at the seams and those who lament that their networks are under-utilised. Applications which require 100% availability, such as personal life support or business critical supply chain systems, have low data volumes. Meanwhile volume demand from teenagers and their parents can fluctuate wildly and degrade response times even over nominally high speed lines.Then ther are all the other factors that affect delivered response times and throughput.

We expect other utilities to plan ahead to provide capacity (and a margin) for peak load, e.g. the coldest day of the year or the commercial break in the middle of Coronation Street.

We placidly accept the “World Wide Wait” when communications networks run out of capacity. 

The Internet  is built on “best efforts” with no guarantees. But those who want a world that is “digital by default” fail to appreciate the consequences. I was given an example recently of a small firm whose terrestrial and  4G connections (fine for the rest of the week) regularly become unusable on Saturday mornings, their weekly peak. Farmers often face a similar situation, unable to go-online to do DEFRA or other paperwork, let alone browse auction sites for current prices, in the evening when their children, or their neighbours’ children, are doing homework and/or socialising.

 But who will pay for the extra capacity – and how?  

 Until the recent above inflation jolt in line rentals, the revenues of both fixed and mobile operators were falling despite sharply rising traffic volumes, because competitive pressures have forced them to drop volume related charges at the same time as entering a discounting price war. Meanwhile new technology gives the new entrants the potential to build and operate networks at well below the cost structures of the incumbents, even before the latter cross subsidise the purchase of sporting rights to try to their increase their share of the “discretionary spend” available to hard pressed parents and their children.

There are many investors willing to fund local fibre to the home or business premises, using a variety of business models, but many of their invesmtent models depend on landlords and property owners paying up front for installation and/or tenants committing to a period of service long enough to cover the cost of connection.

Those seeking to tap such funds face a number of obstacles:

 1)     Regulatory disapproval of discounts for term contracts or favourable rates for up-front investors.

2)     The availability of affordable backhaul – one provider of local fibre to the premises networks is said to have turned down over 70% of proposals because this is not available locally

3)     Confusion and delay regarding local planning and infrastructure sharing, adding 25% and upwards (sometimes even quadrupling) to cost and weeks, months or years to timescales.

4)     Political and regulatory uncertainty, deterring major investors.

One of the conclusion of the meeting on the 12th was that the last of these was the most significant.

Hence the importance of agreeing three or four key messages to concentrate the minds of politicians so that incumbents can get better terms for raising funds to upgrade and extend their networks at the same time as new entrants address local markets that are uneconomic for national players.