The Budget for Broadband was last year: this year it is time to act

The Government Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy, announced with last years budget included plans to underwrite broadband investment from a 40 billion infrastructure fund – beginning with 3 billion for Virgin’s extensions – with a 1 universal 100 Mbps vision. I welcomed such a forward looking response to the submissions to the previous DMCS consultation, many of which had looked beyond catch-up games to the need to transition from a heterogeneous collection of semi incompatible, obsolescent, pre-internet, national and local networks to a world-class, internet-age resilient and ubiquitous fixed and mobile mesh. Over the past year we have seen a sharp rise in local, regional and national infrastructure investment by competitors to BT, some under-written by HM Treasury or European Investment Bank. Most not, including because of problems with applying. Now we have plans in the budget for a public-private Broadband Investment Fund which will be better able to draw down on the guarantees.

Perhaps the most important point in the budget is, however, the way the increased spend on flood defences will be funded. We can expect the insurance companies to draw attention to the need to move rapidly to replace Fibre to the Cabinet in all areas where flooding is likely. The consequences of the vulnerability of cabinets and their power supplies, compared to a passive fibre only equivalent, has, once again, been demonstrated. This, plus the news that Ofcom is finally going to take action on BT’s declining services to business users could lead to a sharp increase in investment in fibre, including to replace FTTC on flood plains. Hence comments from BT about “restarting” its own “commercial” programme and the fibre to the premises plans that were dropped a few years ago. But how “future proof” will that investment be?        

Thinkbroadband has done a useful note drawing attention to the other communications-related statements. in the Budget . Perhaps the most important relates to the timescale for 5G roll-out .The commentator regards Bournemouth as an odd choice but its problems with 2G and 3G cover and “uneven” traffic levels (e.g. networks which fall over during the Holiday and Conference or bad weather) make it a good test bed for “national” roll out while global players like Zayo use experience from supporting 5G in other parts of the world to ensure their UK Fibre to the Tower (or Housing, Office or Shopping Complex) networks can not only cope with the small cell clusters already being planned to support 4G but the expansion needed for 5G and a “smart society”.

I recently pointed out the need to complement “visions” of the “smart world” envisaged in reports like the Atos “Digital Vision for London” with forward strategies for creating the necessary communications infrastructure and complemented Salford for being one of the first local authorities to focus on pulling in private investment to turn its social housing into potential smart housing. Some of the comments in Salford blog have been criticised by those who think progress would be faster if it was easier for local authorities to auction their housing rooftops to the highest bidder – rather than provide non-exclusive access to those who will provide the best service to the tenants. The choices need to be publicly debated. I suspect that different local authorities and landlords would come to different conclusions. Some might come to different conclusions for different buildings and estates. The reasons for the differences, including the way funding pressures incentivise short and long term planning horizons, need to be brought out. What is almost certain is that “one size will not fill all“.  

I find it interesting that the “great estates“, who want their refurbishment programmes, let alone their new build, to meet the needs of tenants ten and twenty years into the future, are showing more profound vision and insight than many technology gurus, let alone the network operators (who often appear more concerned with the three month investor relations reviews that long term investors are now seeking to scrap).

The property owners are putting the need for incremental change, (because the future is uncertain and today’s optimal is tomorrow’s constraint) into the context of the Bazalgette strategy: think well ahead well ahead whenever you agree an upgrade. After the great stink had made the Houses of Parliament unusable, Joseph Bazalgette was given terms of reference to build a comprehensive sewerage network for London. When planning the network he took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said ‘Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen‘ and doubled the diameter to be used. The smaller diameter would have lasted until the 1960s (and Tower Blocks). Most of pipes are still going strong, although the main trunk sewers are now having to be complemented, You could say the same for Vint Cerf’s foresight with regard to IPV4, only now running out of capacity.

Hence the need for the Digital Policy Alliance exercise to look at the communications infrastructure needs of a “smart society” so that those who are “only going to do this once” can install risers, ducting, equipment rooms, access points and/or shared fibre networks that can cope not only with current international standards but those likely over the next couple of decades. The exercise is planned as part of portfolio of projects, in partnership with others, to look at the issues posed by the transition to a smart society: smart phones, smart consumer goods, household appliances, toys, cars, house, cities et al.

What is different about the communications infrastructure group is that it may end up being driven by users and investors rather than by technology enthusiasts and would-be suppliers. They will, however, be wanting the latter to provide inputs so that rating schemes (like wiredscore) can cover all that might needed during the lifetime of a new build or refurbishment.     
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