Interview: Ed Vaizey MP on broadband, mobile networks and the internet of things

Digital economy minister Ed Vaizey MP reflects on the next steps for the BDUK project and talks mobile roll-out, 5G and the internet of things (IoT)

It’s fair to say that, after a troubled start, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) is now starting to deliver the goods.

Digital economy minister Ed Vaizey, the man at the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) responsible for BDUK, is naturally upbeat to have hit the million homes milestone over the summer, ahead of schedule.

“I am personally not disappointed with what BT is doing; actually I am very proud of what BT has achieved. It has delivered many projects ahead of schedule,” he says. “I take a lot of brickbats for giving the contracts to BT but I have to say, I think the outcome has been pretty good.”

This is not to dismiss the frustrations of those left excluded, but Vaizey says: “The frustrating thing is, broadband is an engineering project and you’re dealing with infrastructure that is quite old and has to be updated. It’s not easy and it’s not something we can deliver overnight.”

Vaizey backs the BDUK process to the hilt. He says: “We deliberately had a series of 44 contracts for two reasons. One was because we wanted local councils to be partners. They are more effective partners because they’re also the local planning authority.

“The second was that, if you’re a relatively small broadband company, in theory bidding for a county broadband contract should be easier than bidding for England’s.

“At the same time, people really have to remember that BT has a national network and that, under state aid guidelines, if you’re using public money to build a network you have to accept that others have access to it. The big national players either fell down because they didn’t have the capacity to take on these contracts, or didn’t want to share their networks.

“I did not come to this saying: 'Let’s give it all to BT.' I would have welcomed the competition, and I do still think the consortium led by Fujitsu in the early days did help keep BT’s feet to the fire.

“The frustration is that broadband has become a ubiquitous need. People want to watch iPlayer, they understand how important it is for their business and the infrastructure is playing catch-up, so I totally understand people’s frustration.”

Building bridges

But for all the goodwill in the world, there is no shortage of people ready to spit tacks over the fact that BDUK nonetheless remains BT’s project. So how can the government encourage other areas of private investment, and build bridges with those who felt they were excluded during the tendering process?

Vaizey points to the ongoing trials of new broadband technology, including Wi-Fi and satellite broadband. These are being carried out in various locations around the UK, as a means for suppliers to get back in the game.

Come 2017 – when it is hoped 95% of the UK will have access to what the government defines as superfast broadband – the focus will switch to the last 5%, the rural areas hardest to reach.

Vaizey hopes this will spur altnets and smaller operators to demonstrate new and more cost-effective ways of delivering broadband.

For DCMS, the trials will ensure that the technologies eventually selected – whatever delivery method they may use – present value for money.

“We need proper investigation into new technologies to come up with a realistic number, so I can go to the Treasury and say: ‘Actually, based on these trials, we can get there with this figure. It puts us in a much stronger position to negotiate,'” he says.

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Lack of interest in broadband

It certainly sounds hopeful, but recent Ofcom figures have put the cat among the pigeons at DCMS, suggesting that the government has an underlying problem with take-up.

So will a lack of interest stymie the BDUK project?

Take-up is important because it will help operators achieve a better return on their investment; when supplying broadband to a village of 100 households, the business is far more attractive if, say, 80 houses – rather than 30 – take the service.

Many altnets already require a minimum commitment before they start digging up roads.

“We need to do more to publicise broadband availability and its importance,” says Vaizey, “so that is something we are looking at now.”

“I understand and hear those who are chomping at the bit, saying: ‘Where is my broadband?’ But at the same time there are dozens of people saying: ‘Well actually, we don’t need high-speed broadband, we’re quite capable of coping with what we’ve got,’ or: ‘We don’t even see a need to use the internet.’”

How postcode data will help hit the last 5%

Earlier this year, BDUK’s incoming CEO Chris Townsend revealed that one of his first acts would be to conduct a review of all 44 local authorities involved in the project. He said he hopes to address, once and for all, the lack of transparency around the release of postcode data showing where BT was going to roll out broadband.

As Computer Weekly has reported extensively in the past 18 months, the release of the data was persistently obstructed and obfuscated. Some councils and BT have said that releasing it would be prejudicial to BT’s commercial interests – despite having been given the go-ahead to do so.

Vaizey says heads have now been comprehensively knocked together and, at the time of writing, around 75% of authorities are openly providing the data – although he admits the government has yet to see much benefit from this.

However, DCMS is collaborating closely with BT to find out where take-up is happening, producing more and better data to power the embryonic campaign to get more people interested.

Networks for the future: 5G and the IoT

Alongside the broadband roll-out, Vaizey is also in charge of areas of network policy such as 4G roll-out, now well advanced but still a continuing project; and is beginning to look at other trends shaping the future of the connected world, such as the internet of things (IoT).

Unlike the BDUK controversy, mobile networking is one policy area where government can reflect on genuine success. The 4G roll-out is already well ahead of schedule, with EE expecting to reach its target of 98% coverage by the end of 2014 – and O2 and Vodafone following closely behind.

Then there is the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) – in many ways BDUK’s twin – a £150m scheme to bring mobile network coverage to areas operators do not cover.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I didn’t quite realise we were being pioneers,” says Vaizey, “and it has helped in many ways, because MIP was really the first time the government worked with operators on a publicly-funded project.

“It has also helped Ofcom and operators work much more closely together in understanding coverage issues, and made us realise there are big technical challenges to getting mobile coverage to remote rural areas. But I think we’re now poised to start a significant roll-out of these MIP masts, over the next 12 months,” he says.

But even as the last gaps are filled in, technology is moving on and talk is already turning to 5G, the next mobile networking standard.

Although still poorly defined, more people are starting to talk about 5G and the government is behind the idea – perhaps thanks in part to London mayor Boris Johnson, who earlier this year pledged to bring 5G to London by 2020. Was Johnson completely off the mark? Vaizey says no.

“There certainly could be advances, particularly with the use of small cell technologies, that would allow operators to ramp up speeds in London and other cities. Certainly I think there’d be a commercial appetite to do so,” he says.

“We’re putting significant investment into the future of 5G, the IoT, things like the Digital Catapult [a collaboration centre in London’s Kings Cross intended to develop ideas relating to data and the UK economy and opening in November 2014] – so there are a lot of opportunities for the UK to be at the forefront, and pioneering.

“We’re shortly going to publish government chief scientific advisor Mark Walport’s report into the IoT – so, in the last few months of this government, we are putting the IoT on the agenda and saying the UK wants to be a leader; and here are some principles in how we can do that.”

The Walport report will set the parameters for future government policy around the IoT. It will cover areas such as the need for technical standards around how different connected objects communicate with each other, and security. But it will also point to the need for greater co-operation and co-ordination between different digital projects and startup incubators.

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