In word, if not always in deed, broadband has been at the heart of the coalition government’s digital strategy over the past five years. But as one of the most contentious general elections in recent history looms, what changes to broadband policy can we expect to see, and what changes does the market want to see?
The broadband news coming out of Westminster over the past 18 months has had a much more positive spin than before. Notably, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the scheme to bring connectivity to parts of the country left out of the commercial superfast roll-out, has begun to hit its stride, ramping up delivery and properties passed at a steady rate, although questions over the process still remain.
Chris Townsend, the man in charge of BDUK at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, took over the project last year. Having knocked a lot of heads together – and spent a lot of time in front of parliamentary select committees – Townsend maintains that things are now clearly ahead of schedule.
“I am optimistic we will complete phase 1 by early 2016, and some projects are coming to an end soon,” he says. “Phase 2 is progressing well – we will hit 95% by the end of 2017 – and within that, we will have every one of the local bodies achieving the 90% threshold.”
Match funding for phase 2 has been one of the key challenges facing BDUK, and although Townsend concedes it has been a challenge, he expects the roll-out to go a little more smoothly, at least for a while.
For Bill Murphy, head of next-generation access at BT, rarely a day goes by when he is not fending off complaints about the BDUK roll-out. But complaints are par for the course, as he explained in a recent interview with Computer Weekly, and they will become more vociferous as BDUK edges closer to that elusive 95% figure, which it is set to hit during the next parliament.
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For Murphy, the current priority is to continue to get the contracts delivered and to drive more take-up. For this reason, he is a keen supporter of the DCMS TV and billboard superfast advertising campaign.
As for the challenges still to be overcome, uppermost in Murphy’s mind is the fact that thousands of things have to go right every day of the week, in the right order, to be able to deliver.
He has argued from the start that local authorities need to take the lead on broadband delivery, because so much relies on getting the right permits, planning consent, traffic management and community goodwill.
“BDUK is a local project executed on a national scale, and we need to have buy-in and support from local authorities,” he says.
This will become more important as BDUK moves into phase 2 and the gain share mechanisms put in place begin to funnel money back to the UK’s local authorities. This is an area where Westminster can exert influence after the election, says Murphy.
But whether it is David Cameron or Ed Miliband standing on the steps of Number 10 when the dust settles, we can expect to see a broad consensus advocating continuity around broadband policy, he says.
“If there is a change in government, I don’t see any change,” says Murphy. “If anything, their ambition should grow as the benefits accrue. They should want more speed and more coverage.
“If there is change at Number 10, I would hope that Labour would want the same thing for citizens and businesses. I am sure there would be a review of what has gone on and what is going on, and that’s normal for anybody coming into a new role, but this is just too important, so I wouldn’t expect to see big policy changes.”
Better regulation a priority
If the news from government and BT tends towards the positive, it is no real surprise. After all, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been sunk into broadband.
For Charles Bligh, CEO at TalkTalk Business, broadband policy is a matter of regulation, and as Ofcom welcomes its new leader, Sharon White, he urges it to take the initiative around wholesale costs and ensure that any future margin squeeze test applied to BT Openreach actually has teeth.
“Reach is improving, but costs need to be lower,” he says. “We have seen an uptake in fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) for businesses, which had previously been muted, but where we are selling it, it’s as a layer 2 Ethernet service for corporate networks.
“What would really help me is if Ofcom moved to drop the wholesale price. If that came down, I could bring down my price and drive demand.”
This is a view shared by Barney Lane, director of regulation, strategy and economics at Colt, who believes there would be more competition in broadband roll-out if there was fairer competition in backhaul.
“The UK has an illustrious history of very active competition at the service level, until the time comes – which it has – when we actively need more physical fibre,” he says. “The market has moved on and the regulator has been caught in the wrong place.
“In other countries, politicians have been dedicated to ensuring competition at the fibre level. We hope Ofcom will liberate access to the incumbent’s passive infrastructure.”
Colt’s Lane says that compared to other European markets, such as France, its UK business is heavily concentrated in London because it has never had an incentive to lay fibre in the rest of the country.
“If we could lay fibre in other cities, all of a sudden there’s a much better business case to invest in it,” he says.
But Lane stops short of calling for the government to force the full separation of Openreach from BT, saying that even though Openreach is more tied to BT than either of them would care to admit, it would not be a major part of the solution to the problem.
Mark Collins, director of strategy and public affairs at pure fibre player CityFibre, goes slightly further. He believes the best model for delivering a modern, fit-for-purpose national fibre infrastructure should be that the builder of that infrastructure – Openreach – should be completely independent of the ISPs that use it.
“We have a shared infrastructure, CityFibre has no motivation to compete with our providers, and if you look at some of the models emerging for fibre deployment in Europe, Stockholm has Stokab, which makes fibre open to all providers,” he says.
“We certainly support the view of the infrastructure being independent as a better model. The regulators need to be mindful of supporting a more pro-competitive environment for fibre investment.”
Speaking at a recent Westminster eForum event, Priorities for Broadband, Sky UK policy head Alistair Law said the next government will have to do more to encourage competition, just as its predecessor did in the last decade when it made BT create Openreach.
“The challenge is how we equip the superfast world with the same levels of competition, the lack of which leads to bad consumer outcomes, lack of incentive to invest and delays,” said Law.
Broadband is the defining piece of infrastructure of our time, and the way we are set up is not doing us any favours. The Victorians would be turning in their graves if they witnessed how this is being done
Alex Pratt, Buckinghamshire and Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership
“In a truly competitive environment, we should not have needed government money to advertise broadband.”
But demand for regulatory change is by no means universal. At the Priorities for Broadband event, Virgin Media head of public affairs Daniel Butler said he felt the strength of the current regulatory regime was proven by his company’s recent announcement of a £3bn investment in fibre broadband.
Butler suggested that the challenges in the next parliament would be about establishing clearer parameters around an overall approach to net neutrality, and applying more rigorous and robust testing criteria to emerging network topologies.
However, he did argue that the government should take its responsibility to extract maximum value from private investors more seriously, and said it was important for the government’s money to be more tightly limited to areas where the market will not invest.
On this point, Julian Ashworth, global director of industry policy at BT, said that one challenge allied to hitting the last 5% of premises is that many of them will be urban dwellers, largely in deprived wards of low-density housing, which will present problems for BT.
“We will need some form of intervention to address that,” he said. “To get to that 1-2%, we will need agreement between the UK government and the EU.”
Alex Pratt, chairman of the Buckinghamshire and Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), used his talk at the event to question why other areas of national infrastructure, such as transport, were getting so much money while broadband was not.
Pratt said the answer may be because it sits within the remit of DCMS. Because DCMS is a relatively small department with limited impact on the coalition’s agenda – and the fact that it had been distracted by projects such as the London 2012 Olympics – it had created a policy vacuum that was filled by Ofcom acting on its own.
Pratt suggested the next government needs to do much more to make national broadband infrastructure a project on the same scale as HS2.
“Broadband really is the defining piece of infrastructure of our time, and the way we are set up is not doing us any favours,” he said.
“This will be seen as a failure on the scale of the success the Victorians had with railways. The Victorians would be turning in their graves if they witnessed how this is being done.”