Superslow and even more furious: the PX Report is a Curate's Egg

The Policy Exchange report “The Superfast and the Furious” published today makes some excellent points and should be read in full. The headline points in the synopsis illustrate how far Ofcom has fallen short of its statutory duties as stated in the Communication Act 2003 rather than on its website – where it leaves out all of Section 4, presumably because it does not regard the views of consumers (and the other items listed) as relevant to the “things” it is required to “secure” under Section 2.

I agree the main thrust of the report but have four main quibbles, beginning with the acceptance of 2Mbps as a baseline metric. The pre-1997 definition of broadband was the bandwidth necessary to carry broadcast quality full motion video. This was watered down to “always on Internet” under New Labour (at one time there was an attempt to define 125kbs as “broadband”). I do not know if the authors have tried to watch BBC iPlayer over a rural “up to 2Mpbs” Broadband service. I used to have problems with a suburban service supposedly running at 4 – 5 Mbps. If there is to be a metric it should be based on the quality of service delivered and received. The BBC iPlayer might well be a component in the test package, perhaps alongside access to a selection of Government information and transaction services. As well stated in the first sentance of the synopsist, we need to get away form the obsession with nominal speed. 

My other concerns are about the meaning and practicality of some of the main recommendations but first I would like to give some well deserved praise …  

What marks the Policy Exchange report out from the field (it contains a summary of most of the industry and government funded Broadband reports in recent years) is the findings from the survey of consumer and small firms views carried out by Ipsos MORI . I was surprised that as many as a third are confident they can choose the best deal: but most deals merely repackage unbundled lines, a service relationship with BT Openreach and a “free download” allowance. When it comes to a mobile deal I have yet to fund an assistant who can tell me the difference so I stick with the ones that have given me the fewest problems. I too haven’t a clue what my data usage is (except when I go on-line over a mobile network from outside the UK and the bill comes as a nasty shock) so I was not surprised that so few felt able to estimate this.

The breakdown of the trade-off between price, speed and reliability by age and location is interesting. Those aged under 25 (whose social lives are now networked) put speed above price as well as above reliablity – but are (of course) lost without their connection. Older age groups and those outside urban areas put reliability above speed. It is also helpul to look in detail at the split between those who are concerned to see better cover and those who wish to protect their neighbourhood from masts, cabinets and overhead lines: a breakdown of the equal divide shows (unsurprsingly) that the heavy users, men and the young give priority to cover. Light users, women and those over 65 do not. This means that no politician standing for election can afford to make a choice. The main item in the “streamlined planning process” that Policy Exchange recommends should therefore be provision for Urban Wards and Parish Councils to allow neighbours to fight their battles locally. Anything else is likely to be as streamlined and efficient as something designed by Heath Robinson

This lead me to comment on the other headline recommendations –

but first I would like to point out that the data (page 47) shows a clear split of priorities between consumers and business. Business puts a premium on speed. That this is even higher in urban areas. Business also gives investment in communications priority over rail, airports and everything except roads. The report also indicates that over 80% of business (albeit lower in rural areas with poor access) communicates with customers on-line but less than 40% allow on-line payments, ordering or booking-line. It talks of the need to help and encourage them but of the reason preventing or detering them. This is a most important area for follow up. It is also why I agree strongly with overall approach of putting broadband into mainstream market-driven economic context.

The recommendation that Government should be “more relaxed about developing government digital services that require a broadband connection” and should not delay the “Digital by Default” agenda appears to be at variance with the clear priority given by both consumers and bsuiness to ensuring broader access.  I would argue that the natural conclusion from the survey data was that those progressing the “Digital by Default” agenda should give much greater priority to ensuring that their target audiences have the access necessary to use the services that they are seeking to put on-line. This applies particularly to the Charity Commission, DEFRA and DWP. All three are noted for requiring those living in rural areas with poor physical transport to use on-line services that they cannot reliably access outside the county town or the nearest City.

The recommendation for a stronger role for the Minister responsible for broadband begs the question as to who that should be. I would argue that they should also have responsibility for the public sector network (where HMGs current and potential spend as a customer dwarfs that doled out via BDUK et al) and for communications as part of the Critical National Infrastructure. That would mean eitehr prising critical standards (including inter-operability) and security functions these out of the hands of Cabinet Office, CESG, CPNI, DECC – or giving the minister (and their team) the necessary to cut across boundaries.

I do not blame Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink for ducking these particular issues and am therefore happy to give the report 8/10. A good use of the material available and a more valuable contribution to policy debate than most of the reports listed from pages 32 – 37 added together.       .

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