Shortly after the budget I blogged a welcome for the DCMS-Treasury Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy. Last week I welcomed Martha Lane Fox’s vision for Dot Everyone, albeit expressing my fear that a national institution, let alone a “plan”, will constrain growth and innovation (in line with the business models of currently dominant players) instead of achieving the transformation needed. I concluded by promising that I would follow the F-PLan with Plan B – for a business-led transformation.
It is apposite that the Labour Party has referenced the problems Britain faced in 1799 in its attack on the tax status of non-doms . In 1799 Britain was still recovering from a disastrous slump after the loss of the American Colonies. It was, yet again, at war with the rest of Europe (albeit more rather bloodily that our current regulatory spats). The government was in desparate need of money, but dared not choke off economic recovery lest it too face a revolutionary bloodbath (like the rest of what is now the EU). It also feared the defection of its wealth generating colonies in the West Indies to the nascent zero taxation United States. The first volume of Gibbons “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, (destroyed from within by bureaucracy and over-taxation), had been read by many more politicians than Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The Britain had been turned round from the slump that followed to loss of the American Colonies by a deliberate bonfire of regulation and the scrapping of all taxes that cost more than they raised. The politicians of the day also had a strong prejudice prejudice against central planning, “If death came from Rome we would all be immortal”. That prejudice lasted nearly a century. I do not intend to defend the current tax status of non-doms, in part because I too think it unfair and suspect that the difference between Ed Balls and George Osborne is small print that will serve only to make money for tax lawyers and accountants. I do, however, wish to draw parallels with regard to the creation of the infrastructures, from canals to through railways, water, gas and electricity to the telephone network, on which we still depend.
The Georgian canals and Victorian railways were nearly all funded by consortia of landlords and businessmen who expected to benefit from rising property prices and falling transport costs for their raw materials and produce. Today funding from those who expect to benefit most is missing from almost all plans to organise and finance the transition from 20th century voice and data networks to a 21st century, Internet age, mesh of high resilience, inter-operable, IPV6 based networks. Work is taking place on most of the other elements, from regulatory (where the US FCC has shown the way by classifying broadband as an essential utility) to standards (as for PSN, Smart Cities and Smart Grids). But those calling for a “national” policy have yet to address the issues of funding. They appear to expect a small group of incumbents operators to pay for bottleneck removal and network build that wll not make them more money, indeed it may even reduce their revenues. They expect government subsidy to make up the differnce. Meanwhile a growing number of communities are benefiting from alternative investment models at the local level. The most recent are Liverpool and Woking.
80% of the cost of new network build is civil engineering, including wayleave and access arrangements. In rural areas the cost falls dramatically when farmers provide uncharged access and help with trenching in return for service and shareholdings. In urban areas the cost reductions can be similarly dramatic. A recent meeting of inner city property owners (both commercial and residential, including social housing) and operators (both fixed and wireless) identified that the legal fees involved in agreeing wayleave and access arrangements (because current standard agreements are inappropriate for multi-tenanted buildings) averaged nearly as much as the equipment costs. Meanwhile the potential revenue from wayleave rentals and access charges is negligible compared to added value that comes from offering a choice of world class communications and smart building services to tenants.
New-build properties such as the Shard or Heron Tower incorporate shared communications spines to handle the network demands, including from smart building controls, anticipated over the next few decades. Such spines has already been retrofitted during major rebuilds and upgrades, such as for Tower 42 and Centre Point in London. Incremental change, to upgrade existing communication infrastructures, as tenants come and go in multi-tenanted properties, whether commercial or residential (as in common in inner cities), is more complex and needs to allow for the risk of one operator disrupting the services of another during maintenance, upgrade or when a new tenant wants a change of service. A growing number of players are, however, offering services in this space and the rate of take-up for these has accelerated over the past 18 months. Similarly a growing number of landlords and of those managing large portfolios of multi-tenanted properties can see the value of using semi-standard agreements for shared wayleaves and access which give changing populations of tenants a choice of service.
Conversely innovative operators wish to use the upgrade of legacy arrangements (which often assume exclusivity, rapid access for sub-contractors of unknown provenance and one-way break clauses) to organise profitable, rapid payback, offers to attractive groups of tenants.
The issues relating to Inner Cities, (tiers of ownership and control from freeholder, leaseholder, sub-leaseholder, tenant and sub-tenant, plus managing agents and building controllers) are different to those in a suburban or rural area where ownership and control have fewer tiers but may be more fragmented. The value to participants of the solutions on offer also differs. Some landlords and property owners welcome and may help fund incremental infrastructure investments that meet their own needs and those of their tenants. Others are less enthusiastic. The issues that need to be addressed are not, therefore, readily amenable to nationally standard solutions: hence the failure of the first attempt to update the Electronic Communications Code and narrowness of those being addressed by the current consultation deadline 30th April.
The need is to bring together those who wish to address the future needs of themselves and their customers, their tenants and, in the case of local authorities, their voters and business rate-payers.A group of inner London landlords, local authorities and network operators is looking at wayleave and access arrangements and has its second meeting next week.
In January I attended a workshop organised by Regional Network Solutions and hosted by BT Redcare to learn from case studies of co-operation, pooling budgets for CCTV, traffic and street furniture management and using local authority wayleaves and the spirit behind the Social Value Act (not just the small print) to massively upgrade shared infrastructures at the same time as enduring serious budget cuts and transitioning to PSN standards – whatever they are. I will not embarrass the speaker who knifed to the heart of successful collaboration with the wonderful phrase “the ego has landed“. The “real” obstacle to effective collaboration is rarely business case or even ring-fenced budgeting – there are usually ways round. The real obstacles are “status” and “politics”. “Success is driven by those willing to undergo a “charisma bypass” and give credit to those whose support is needed – even if they have had to be bludgeoned into giving it.
The bad news is that I agreed to try to organise the production of a “Dummies Guide to Collaboration”, without having identified who to get to do the work necessary, let alone who to get to pay them. I had assumed that the suppliers who would stand to benefit from new spend during a time of increasing austerity cutbacks would be enthusiastic. I now realise that the suppliers are divided into two main camps. There are those working flat out with all the business they handle, usually on incremental projects with payback within weeks or months – not years. And there are those sitting on their hands, spinning out legacy contracts and hoping that the next government will unleash a new round of PFIs,
Meanwhile the world has changed. The purchase of O2 by Hutchison Whampoa (to merge with 3), on top of that of EE by BT, the £3 billion roll-out plans of Virgin Media (backed by HMG loan guarantees) and the rate of growth of traffic over networks like that of Sky (more than doubled in a single year) also mean that Vodafone has gone from market leader (with a massive war chest from Verizon to finally sort out its inheritance from Cable & Wireless) to laggard. Whether or not the “collective” business model of bundled “Quadplay” services will survive (let alone thrive), none of them is currently meeting the needs of business users and the backhaul networks they currently share (in shifting consortia) are creaking as traffic growth accelerates, now doubling in under a year.
Hence the growing investment in local projects to install fibre to the premises or femto (supporting a mobile or wifi cell), particularly business premises: from start-ups like B4RN (enlisting community labour to hold down costs), through players like Gigaclear , Hyperoptic (backed by George Soros and City Fibre to inward investors like Hong Kong Telecom (their parent PCCW owns UK Broadband or EMCOR (helping Woking leapfrog even further ahead of its competitors as a business location Most commercial players are, however, only looking at locations where the local authority will help them cut costs (e.g. by providing shared access to its own wayleaves and infrastructure and accelerating planning permission) and reduce risk (by helping them identify customers who will pay, or at least commit, up front). That enables them to achieve the rapid payback necessary to fund the next project (or three) without the need to dilute their equity.
BT and the other incumbent players are still trying to work out whether this is a threat or an opportunity to pass the cost of improving local business connectivity to others, while they focus on improving backhaul – so as to harvest the new traffic for their national networks, while plotting to take over the new networks when those running them get tired or bored – as is now happening in Sweden with the municipal dark fibre networks being taken over by the incumbent. This was, of course, what happened in the 19th century when the National Telephone Company hoovered up local operations before it was taken over by the General Post Office (so that Government could tap the phone lines!!!).
Meanwhile BT has joined Virgin and KCOM in resisting calls to open up its own backhaul and distribution networks, at least until they get access to those of others (e.g. to replace copper lines on electricity poles with fibre without paying ludicrous, to them, fees). And who is to say they are actually wrong, given the need to improve capacity and resilience with regard to some of the choke points where other players are most wanting access.
Given such a potentially competitive market, however, the cost of serving the socially and geographically excluded, whether in inner city social housing or rural areas, should fall. The only reason to fear that it will rise is if government support policy is focussed on enabling BT to extend its legacy networks and thus to cherry pick those who are easiest to serve – as opposed to creating integrated networks using alternative technologies that are better suited to remote, or otherwise difficult, locations and unusual topologies.
In short, there is a lot happening. The time is also ripe to stop waiting for GODOT (Government obfuscation, delay or other time-wasting) and let local enterprise (local authorities in partnership with property owners, landlords, estate agents, property developers tenants, business and residents) do the job – while adhering to the international inter-operabiity standards (including IPV6) which mean that any who fail or get bored can be taken over and integrated with the operations of those who stay the course.
On 23rd April I therefore plan to use the opportunity of the SOCITM Annual Conference to call for local authorities to work together to show central government how to do digital infrastructure better – with Manchester showing London how to leapfrog Hong Kong into the 21st Century and Leeds refighting the Wars of the Roses to show Manchester that Yorkshire can do IT even better.
I am now seeking to engage those suppliers who see making money by helping build the future as a better use of their resources than lobbying the next government (via the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, trying to use Son of PSN” or the current DECC consultation) to preserve and extend bloated legacy contacts until they go belly up, like stranded wales, rotting on the beach of history.
P.S. The DECC consultation (deadline 15th June) looks particularly odd – like an attempt to herd the existing smart meter networks serving business onto the new domestic smart metering system before the latter collapses for lack of take-up. The business (as opposed to political) case for a separate network for smart meters was always suspect (it dates back to when Ed Milliband, as Secretary of State replaced the proposed industry-funded scalable pilots by a national programme). It now looks positively dated as the landlords of shared office blocks and business parks are looking to install shared infrastructures (ducts, masts, risers and equipment rooms if not necessarily shared cables and aerials) for wifi, mobile, smart buildings and all forms of business and industrial communication.