Will fibre deregulation for ISPs hasten or hold back broadband roll-out?

As culture secretary Maria Miller cuts planning rules for ISPs building fibre cabinets, resistance from councils could restrain broadband roll-out

The broadband industry has said goodbye to Jeremy Hunt as he takes Andrew Lansley’s old job as secretary of state for health at the Department of Health, following the cabinet reshuffle.

Now Maria Miller takes the post of secretary of state for media, culture and sport and no-one can say the MP made a quiet entrance.

The department for culture, media and sport (DCMS) and its previous minister had spoken of cutting the red tape around planning broadband roll-out for months, but no action was ever taken.

But now enter Maria Miller with an announcement that promises to spark controversy across the local government landscape.

The headline legislation the minister wants to bring in – and will do so in spring next year, according to the DCMS – is to allow ISPs to build fibre cabinets for superfast broadband without permission from the relevant council.

There are exceptions when it comes to sites of scientific interest, for example, areas protected due to their wildlife for example. But in most cases, any ISP will be able to install a broadband fibre cabinet to house superfast broadband connectivity in any street.

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Business reaction to DCMS announcement

UK businesses are ecstatic about how much easier rolling out significant connections will be.

“BT is already rolling out fibre broadband at record pace but there are a variety of issues that can sometimes slow us down and cause frustration for consumers and businesses keen to get fibre broadband,” said a BT spokesman.

“We are pleased the government acknowledges those barriers and that they share our ambition that as many people as possible can benefit from the high-speed fibre revolution.”

Julian David, director general of technology industry board Intellect, also sang the praises of the move.

“Today’s announcement is a much-needed boost for businesses crying out for access to better broadband as a route to growth and will also enable new businesses to spring up across the country, creating jobs and wealth,” said David. 

There is no question the physical deployment of broadband infrastructure is taking longer than the business community and consumers would like. If there is any hope of the UK achieving its goal of having the best broadband in Europe by 2015, government and the private sector need to find ways to hasten the roll-out.

Local government reaction to DCMS announcement

But the new legislation has upset local government whose thoughts and plans about what happens on their own doorsteps are being ignored.

“We are concerned that the ability of local people to oppose commercial broadband boxes, of which some can be large eyesores, will be diluted by these proposals,” said Philippa Roe, councillor and leader of Westminster City Council. 

“It is more important that councils work in partnership with broadband companies to locate infrastructure sensibly.”

There is no doubt some councils have stood in the way of progress. Haringey council forced BT to move cabinets in Muswell Hill after residents complained they ruined the landscape. Similar fights over broadband roll-out have flared up between BT and Kensington and Chelsea.

But Westminster has pointed out it is already working on a number of connectivity projects, such as Soho’s own fibre network – Sohonet – and free Wi-Fi in the West End.

"I would question why the government’s approach is needed at all,” said Roe. 

“It will only result in a gradual and prolonged development across the UK rather than the big bang in broadband that the UK needs.”

The leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, Merrick Cockell, also believed the current process of working in partnership with ISPs was the best route for everyone involved.

“We are pro-broadband here in Kensington and Chelsea but we are pro-conservation too,” Cockell said. “It is perfectly possible to resolve the tension between the two through mature negotiation.

“We have already reached a situation with BT Openreach, where 115 out of 120 of the locations proposed have been agreed without compromising on our duty to look after our heritage. 

"Indeed, we have even offered to waive planning fees worth over £40,000 to help rapid broadband roll out. In any event, Kensington and Chelsea is already bristling with the latest IT.”

Consultation could hold back broadband roll-out

But, this isn’t enough for Miller. She may be a member of a government that encourages "the big society", but when it comes to broadband the MP firmly believes this is a central decision to be taken.

“Superfast broadband is vital to secure our country’s future to kick start economic growth and create jobs,” Miller said. “We are putting in the essential infrastructure that will make UK businesses competitive and sweep away the red tape that is a barrier to economic recovery.”

“The government means business and we are determined to cut through the bureaucracy that is holding us back.”

The words are bold and likely to upset many in the local political sphere, but Miller has a point. These connections are essential if businesses are to thrive in more than just the centre of the UK’s largest cities. It is also a necessity for the wider public to live and learn through, giving even the remotest household a connection to the wider world.

But Miller and her team must be careful. There is an opportunity for consultation on the new rules before the legislation passes and local councils could rise up against it. 

If the arguments drag on, the same situation could arise where the broadband roll-out is stalled by local councils. This could end up putting the broadband roll-out even further behind schedule while the apparatus of government sifts through the legal ramifications.

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