UK has the potential to lead in a competitive online world. But has it the will?

The Sky take-over of O2 Broadband helps put recent manouverings, such as the BT invasion of the sports content market to try to get traffic for its Internet TV operations, into context. However, a definition of the “ISP Market” which leaves out Vodafone is not helpful. Vodafone’s UK landline operations grew dramatically with the purchase of Cable & Wireless, most teenage browsing and more than half of all on-line transactions (globally) now takes place over mobiles, with the West beginning to catch up with Africa, Asia and America.

Last year I liked the Vodafone concept of Universal Broadband, even before they took over Cable and Wireless and did an intra-UK infrastructure deal with O2. I recently took a quick look at just how many land-line based “broadband” operations Vodafone has around the world, waiting to be brought together in a seamless global operation – were national (e.g. UK) and regional (e.g. EU) regulators ever to permit such a development.

Meanwhile Telefonica’s revenues from mobile, broadband and IPTV revenues in South America have overtaken those from Europe. Note also their strategic cross shareholdings with China Unicom, even after the distress sale. Now look at the scale of the networks the Chinese are building and running around the world and look at where most of the world’s smart phones are built and where nearly half the world’s Internet users live . Now remember that in traditonal Chinese eyes, we are (at heart) merely pirates from some soggy islands, off a corrupt and  fragmented continent, at the far far end of the Silk Road

That helps put Neelie Kroes frustration over EU policy into context. But is her vision any more far sighted that than of BT in seeking to copy the US “triple play” concept? Can it make its non-infrastructure operations any more profitable than its past attempts. Has any triple play operator, with the possible exception of some of the US cable operators with local regulated monopolies (like Liberty which has just taken over Virgin), been more profitable than those who stick to what they know best, whether it be running a utility platform or publishing content, while doing deals with partners. The fate of those publishers who tried to go into infrastructure (from Pearson and Reed Elsevier to Time Warner) is little better. The exception is News International but note the way that it holds its operating units to account separately (and “robustly”, as with the closure of the News of the World when Rupert Murdoch discovered that the changes he thought he had made on his mother’s “orders” had been subsequently ignored). News International also avoids overpaying. Compare the price paid by Sky for the O2 operations with that paid by Liberty for Virgin.

Is Macquarie, with its portfolio of infrastructure investments, from dark fibre and radio to cable TV following a more share-holder friendly approach to convergence than that of those who think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?              

And how should regulators respond to those who try to leverage a dominant position in one market, be it the provison of physical (land-line or radio) or logical (operating system, browser or search engine) access or content (e.g. sports rights) into another? 

At this point the issues of “net neutrality” (from bandwidth rationing and traffic prioritisation through any-to-any inter-operability standards to content control) take on a rather wider meaning. In just over a week the Conservative Technology Forum has its AGM. One of the topics will be how to update the current research programme to reflect the changes over the past year and help bring about the investment in UK infrastructure that is needed (including, but not only, by BT).