Transforming broadband across the UK - not just Bristol

The transformation of the UK broadband market over the past year is illustrated by presence of BT, CISCO, Microsoft, Virgin and Vodafone as well as City Fibre, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic ITS, Metronet, Callflow and Satellite Internet at an event that was originally intended to help use enhanced take-up of the broadband vouchers to pull through the City of Bristol’s plans to leapfrog Manchester and Leeds, let alone London, as a hub for inter-active media development and on-line creativity.

That event has now grown into a one stop briefing that is ideal for for the senior officers and  politicians of any local authority, from parish to city or county council and those landlords and business park owners who are looking to work with their local Council or LEP to provide 21st century connectivity for their tenants. I also commend it to large business users who are getting pissed off with the way their needs are being ignored by those who assume they afford leased lines for their many sites (some on every high street or forecourt) and home-based users (who may need secure, inter-active global access to complex design and technical information). It should be a great opportunity to make contact with policy makers who might listen, as well as those who would love to be on your short list of delivery partners or alternative accommodation sites. 

On the morning of the 15th there is a half day workshop on the voucher scheme for local business followed by a technical showcase (in the afternoon) with many of the potential suppliers and operators. I plan to use the showcase to check whether, as I have been told, all the new suppliers are using IPV6 compliant equipment: i.e. the conversion problems are to do with the legacy equipment and systems of the incumbent operator plus, of course, the legacy applications that major fintech players (for example) are anxious to start converting and testing before they are shredded by overseas competitors.    

On the 16th there is a get together of almost all the major players, including the CEO of BDUK, the heads of Broadband Policy for DCMS and BT and the CEOs of many of the alternative network providers. The latter now appear to be in a position to provide local fibre or high speed wireless connectivity to most of the UK for rather less than is currently being quoted by BT. I say “currently” because I anticipate that we may hear that BT is about to change its approach and work with alternative network providers rather than compete.

There is a good reason for such a change of strategy on the part of BT.

It is, financial, akin to the reason why Telia became largest customer of Stokab instead of trying to block a shared municipal network, as BT did with Birmingham. BT and Virgin quietly dropped their case against the Commission for approving the Birmingham plans, because neither can afford to upgrade all their fixed, mobile and wifi infrastructures (including those needed by EE) to give adequate service to IPTV customers, at the same time as subsidising the salaries of the premier league footballers and other sportsmen on whom they are relying to attract new customers. Virgin is about to double its broadband speeds but also appears to be looking at partnerships akin to that which Talk Talk and Sky have in York. Meanwhile, the rocketing traffic being generated by local fibre operators, let alone wifi hotspots and 4G services, is placing increasing strain on BT’s creaking back haul services and it is losing business contracts, like the Defence Fixed Telecoms Service.

It therefore makes sense from BT to focus on that which it does best – provided Ofcom allows it to make money from doing so – i.e. regulating on price and competitive behaviour and not return on capital.

If so, we can predict the consequences.

As in Sweden, the networks of future will be organised and paid for by communities which want globally competitive connectivity, while the former incumbent focuses on linking these to the outside world. Over time it then takes over the operation of the local networks: commonly under contract, so that it does not have to spend shareholders funds to buy them out. Interestingly Teliasonera not only now runs Stokab but disposed of its context operations on the way. This is also akin to the way the UK telephone and telegraph network were created in the first place – municipal enterprise that was nationalised only so that the government could eavesdrop during the run up to World War 1!

As with other INCA events, that in Bristol will be a great opportunity to listen to those who will be crating that future (or another one, or a kaleidoscope of competing futures!). I therefore look forward to meeting representatives from local government who are looking to use the event to learn how to get best value from the 129 million, and rising, of state aid claw back (required by the EU before it would approve the BDUK contracts), and to ensure that local access to world class broadband helps their residents get the jobs of the future, not just surf the net a little faster or watch a wider selection of sport over their smartphone instead of their TV or PC.  

The event is, of course ideal, for those authorities looking (as all should be) to go to open tender to serve those left out of the broadband extension plans to date. The scale of the claw back indicates that the 5 million of broadband advertising paid for by BDUK was not wasted state aid – provided of course the resultant claw back is not simply handed to BT. If it were, we could see a number of global law firms having a field day at the expense of BT, HMG and/or a selection of local councils . It is, however, also apparent that the claw back is geographically uneven. Those councils which drove hard to secure both rapid roll out and subsequent marketing and take-up, (not just spend and the achievement of nominal targets for properties theoretically passed), look set to get most. Those which go out to tender and are robust in their response to attempts at arm twisting can also be seen to have got better service from BT (as happened with Essex). It will be interesting to see what happens with Devon and Somerset now that their small business communities have become engaged alongside local MPs.

I have enjoyed watching INCA grow from a collective of vociferous community broadband enthusiasts into an embryonic trade association with almost every would be community broadband provider (from B4RN to BSkyB) in membership or in the process of joining. I also look to hearing more about its planned services to help Councils get better value for money 

However, one of my main objectives in Bristol will be to pick up ideas to help the candidates for Mayor of London to offer credible policies to prevent the “Southern Powerhouse” from falling behind its global competitors when it comes to business and mobile connectivity. I have nothing against the other Cities of the United Kingdom trying to leapfrog London into the 21st Century. I would just like to see London return the complement – so that municipal enterprise and competition helps achieve what state planning never has – world leadership of the type we had in the 19th Century.