Business rates reform, real competition in telecommunications, better procurement, consistent policies and stable management are just some of the things the IT industry wants addressed by the next government, according to delegates to the Conservative Party's Tech Forum.
David Harrington, of the Communications Managers' Association, said, "We are, at best, uncertain about the target of 'up to' 2Mbps. And we're in an almighty mess with spectrum auctions. The contribution of the mobile sector to universal broadband remains unclear."
Stephen Darvill, of systems integration firm LogicaCMG, called on the Tories to insist that government procurement officials follow existing guidelines to avoid the many disastrous IT projects of the past decade.
He said the Office of Government Commerce, the National Audit Office and other government watchdogs were well aware of what was needed for a successful IT project. The industry had also developed its own guidelines, which it was happy to share with government, he added.
He said many projects involved sweeping changes in business processes. "The IT component is only 20% of these projects," he said, in a call for project managers to stay with projects until they were handed over.
The industry wanted "clean, costed project goals" ideally developed using the industry's Intellect model, leadership and strong management of each project, better reinforcement of existing government standards on procurement and project management, activity-based costing so that everyone understood clearly how costs arose, and a grown-up relationship with suppliers, he said.
Leo Todd, a consultant who represented several potential investors in broadband networks, welcomed BT's £1.5bn investment in broadband technology. He said there was room for others, but they were "held hostage" to other issues, particularly the impact of business rates on optical fibre and wireless networks.
He said local authorities were presently offered a choice of BT and Virgin Media as network operators, but there were others capable of providing 1Gbps services compared with the 40Mbps promised by BT, and 100Mbps offered by Virgin Media. Once councillors made their decision they were stuck with it for a long time, Todd said.
He said the present application of business rates to networks was "ludicrous". Its imminent application to WiFi networks was contrary to the goals of the government's Digital Britain policies to provide a 2Mbps broadband service to every home, he said.
Todd warned that BT OpenReach's request for access to other operators' ducts and other infrastructure as a condition for opening up its own ducts would see a return to monopolistic supply of networking. "Don't penalise smaller operators who have still to see a return on their investment," he said.
He said using electricity poles to carry fibre could reduce much of the estimated £29bn cost of providing fibre to every home.
Todd called for a cheaper procurement process by local authorities. He said a recent network project in Cornwall had attracted three bidders, but by the end of the process, two had walked away because of the cost of bidding. "That's not healthy for the country," he said, adding that the aim should not be to recreate BT's monopoly, especially in the final third of the network.
Attacking red tape could reduce procurement costs which would, in turn, maximise the benefit of any public money spent building networks, he said. Todd referred to a regional network project which took years rather than months to approve. "The last three months added a lot of cost for exactly zero added value," he said.
Speaking from the floor, David Happy called for joined-up planning, especially spectrum planning. He said Lord West had agreed talks with Europe to reserve some frequencies for emergency services, but Ofcom, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills had been unaware of the transaction.
Aidan Paul, CEO of Vtesse Networks, said advances in radio transmission technology in free-to-air frequencies had cut costs to one-tenth of equipment for regulated frequencies. He called on government to resist the lure of a windfall tax from auctioning more 3G and 4G spectrum. Economic growth that came with cheap network access would more than make up for the sacrifice, he said.
A floor speaker supported this view. He said Israel now offered free WiFi from almost every cafe. "It's good for business at every level," he said.
A T-Mobile spokesman said the mobile industry would consolidate and start to share network infrastructure because the entry costs were getting too high because of the high cost of spectrum, among other things. Unaddressed, this would benefit only the incumbent operators, he said.
Another delegate said the government's smart meter project, to replace some 47 million gas and electricity meters in the UK with networked meters, was the start of a national refurbishment programme for British homes. He called for there to be more co-ordination between energy, water and communications ministries, regulators and operators to reduce disruption and cost, and to share common data where possible.
Erudine spokesman John Riley said the government's proposed G-cloud initiative was welcome, but government red tape meant many small and medium companies were kept from tendering for government business. Fixing this required a cultural change "from the prime minister down", he said.
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Image: Rex Features