Which suppliers cannot deliver rural broadband by 2025?

The rapid roll-out of full-fibre and 5G infrastructure is critical to socially and regionally inclusive post- Covid economic recovery. Expedited action to address the long predicted digital infrastructure construction skills gap is one of the most obvious ways of helping some of the millions of the newly unemployed back to work.

The postponement of most of the £5 billion rural broadband programme because currently dominant suppliers say they cannot deliver is therefore a bizarre capitulation to vested interests.

It had long been obvious that it was not in the commercial interests of BT to divert resources into rural broadband unless paid for by the public sector. The pressure to upgrade its core network to handle growing competition to provide the fast, reliable, resilient and converged services now demanded by business and consumers (from BT Retail, Wholesale and EE), is now such that it cannot afford to do so, even if heavily subsidised.

Allowing others to do so, using different technologies or business models, supported by some of £billions available from private sector fund managers or from customers (were they able to  pay up front for  3 – 5 year contracts) was, and is, equally not in BT’s interest.

Nor is it in the interest of those (like Virgin or City Fibre) who want potentially scarce resources to be concentrated on enabling them to compete with BT and/or to fibre up would-be smart cities.

The choices have, course, been complicated by the decision to exclude Huawei from the critical national infrastructure on grounds of “security” (alias economic and/or cyber warfare) and the Brexit negotiations on state aid.

Given that low cost, mass produced Huawei equipment designed for robust operation under extreme conditions across rural China has come to dominate markets across most of the Southern Hemisphere, it might be ideal for rural Britain, without jeopardising national security. Given that the Huawei products lines are designed to international standards using Western IPR such procurements need not lead to any longer term technology lock-ins.

[I learned my “trade” with STC Microwave and Line. STL Harlow was later at the heart of Nortel’s R&D. I have conflicted views on this subject.]

Instead we need action to collate demand and rapidly expand the supply of digital infrastructure construction skills – e.g. hands-on, short course, modules, delivered via commercial training/assessment providers and technical/agricultural colleges with access to simulation equipment and/or brown field and green field practice sites.

This would be an ideal area for post-Covid skills partnerships.

In short: The decision to delay over £3 billion of spend is one that deserves “robust” scrutiny by the hundred or so MPs whose parliamentary majorities may depend on improve on-line access to education, health, welfare and jobs, not just shopping and entertainment, in their constituencies.


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