Do read the full record of the House of Commons debate on May 19th on Rural Broadband and Mobile Coverage . The precise motion is dry, being a call for Ofcom to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800 MHz spectrum to 98%, but it is a shot across the bows of both Ofcom and Broadband UK.
A hundred MPs supported the call for the debate and twenty had taken part before time ran out and the motion was passed. Some gave specific examples of how regulators and officials had killed off local initiatives. The strategy is simple, effective and not confined to broadband. Persuade enthusiasts to bid for extra support from departmental programmes – where the spend on bidding, adjudication, co-ordination and consultancy is commonly more than the original proposals, let alone the funds on offer, whether or not anything actually happens. Watch the enthusiasm drain away. Then claim there is no demand,
The opposition made a valiant attempt to defend the record of the previous government and of Ofcom. At the end the minister praised his officials for doing a great job. I should add, however, that those he actually named do indeed deserve praise for their well-informed attempts to persuade their regulatory colleagues and industry advisors to actually move things forward – despite the attempts of those wishing to preserve cosy regulatory and compliance arm-chairs, “plan” the future and protect past investment from the threat of future competition.
But the message from the MPs was clear.
They are getting impatient. More-over they are receiving good information. I suspect their next target will be the attempt by some of the advisors to Broadband UK to spend the next year planning a new national framework agreement – instead of using those that already work and appear to provide considerably better value for money (e.g for JANET, the National Education Network and the devolved administrations pof Scotland and Wales).
Meanwhile we can expect the funds available to evaporate as local authority reserves are diverted to plug short-term gaps rather than help pull through investment in local shared network services and bottleneck removal – where the direct payback may be in months (not years) as well as enabling radical improvements in service at the same as cutting delivery costs.
This morning I spend a couple of hours editing the draft report of the first planning meeting for the new EURIM shared network services group (not yet on the website) – before it went out to the participants to check for accuracy. This group aspires to bring plans for smart metering and smart grid alongside those for fixed and mobile broadband. The potential for slashing the cost of long-term provision by sharing infrastructure with gas, electricity and water is matched only by that for short-term savings from doing things differently. The problem is to ensure rapid and rational action on inter-operability standards to enable players to undertake scalable pilots without fear of having to write off the investment if they do not fit the standards eventually agreed for UK roll-out.
That means co-ordinated support for leadership (and not just participation) in international standards activities to ensure that short term fixes do not become long-term obstacles. That means building bridges between technology supplies who design and build for world markets and intra-UK operators who have to generate revenues from current networks to invest in upgrades and newbuild.
Standards are boring. Joining up standards across industries with different professional traditions, cultures and terminologies is mind-numbingly boring. The US drive that bypassed the ITU and brought us the Internet has become bogged down in legal battles over intellectual property rights. Unless we take UK participation in standards processes as seriously and urgently as, (for example), the Chinese, the UK will become a decaying backwater, with limited local access to the low cost, high performance products and services now being rolled out across the backwoods and open spaces of Asia-Pacific, Africa and South America.
Contrast that with the benefits of using active co-operation with the Chinese, Indians and South Americans on expediting effective global inter-operability standards to help rebuild our traditional position at the leading edge of telecommunications and power supply. That not be incompatible with co-operation with our American and European partners – but it may well require a different mindset – including when it comes to “ownership” of the intellectual property behind agreed international standards.
At that point it will be interesting to whether those MPs who supported last Thursday’s call for action are willing to once again work together across political boundaries to force the pace.
The task the EURIM group has set itself is not all all easy. All that EURIM, as a policy studies group, brings to the table is a unique track record in providing a neutral venue for serious players to cut across political and interest group boundaries to find ways forward on “difficult” issues.
At the point the confusion over the “status” of a EURIM group becomes a positive advantage. It is as high or low as the participants wish it to be. On June 9th, when this group is due to announce its existance, I will discover how high, low or public they want the status of this group to be – at present the “interested participants” range from “humble” standards engineers to a couple of main board directors of multi-£billion businesses. I anticipate a multi-tier exercise – beginning with relatively low level pilots – but with fast track reporting to enable heavy-weight political backing to be used to bull-doze obstacles out of the way. I also expect a number of thsoe who spoke on the 19th on the House of Commons to wish to help monitor progress at the political level.