CMA Looking for the End of the Line for Broadband UK

David Brunnen, Leader of the Network Services Group at the Communications Management Association (CMA) sees travails ahead for getting the UK moving the broadband fast lane.

“Rail travel may be an opportunity to work on the move but, given flaky mobile coverage, the greater benefit is the chance to doze off and dream awhile. Heading into London you’ll eventually be woken by the familiar refrain, ‘All change, all change. For your security and safety please remove all baggage. Mind the gap’.

It was way back in April that the ‘Pipe Dreams?’ report urged the industry to wake up and mind the broadband gap. In September we were reminded by Competition Minister, Stephen Timms MP that a fair chunk of the estimated two-year window of diminishing competitiveness had already expired. Living close to a telephone exchange hasn’t yet displaced school catchment areas as a house-price factor but it seems inevitable that without some radical shift from copper to fibre the UK will drift into the Abyss of the Locally Loopy.

The really good news is that the UK is far enough behind that we don’t have to be the lone brave risk-taking pioneer – we can simply copy what’s worked elsewhere and try to catch up. The bad news is that there are, apparently, no end of reasons why the solutions found elsewhere are foreign to the way we do things around here. It’s like a competition for finding reasons for not doing the blindingly obvious – a sort of reverse politics; the art of the impossible.

In our increasingly deregulated, non-interventionist state we seem entirely content to leave innovation to folks who are least motivated to change. At Ofcom’s Geneva seminar on FTTH the speaker from C&W listed examples of Access innovation in seven different countries as evidence (if this was not already well understood) that incumbents do not innovate. No-one suggested that BT was entirely responsible for UK market-drag – this was a polite and diplomatic gathering – but innovation is close-coupled to ‘time to market’; another measure where, for obvious practical reasons, the non-incumbents shine.

Responding to their original ‘Pipe Dreams?’ report, The Broadband Stakeholders Group is focusing on four themes aimed at unblocking barriers to progress. These themes are Policy (why do we discourage fibre by higher taxes?), Commerce (how can we encourage new investors as has happened in other countries?), Regulation (at what level of self-inflicted damage is market failure recognised?) and the thorny issues of Public Sector Intervention.

The second response is Ofcom’s consultation on Next Generation Access. This too has a recitation of the things that make the UK different and therefore not receptive to solutions that work elsewhere. More houses than flats make fibre cabling relatively more expensive. Too much Satellite-TV limits IPTV revenues for fibre investors. Is it surprising that of Ofcom’s five characteristics for a healthy fibre diet, the only one that is questioned by BT is the requirement for multi-casting – the one that would provide the greatest incentive for new investors in local fibre distribution?

What is not much talked about in polite company are the examples from Vienna, Amsterdam, Stockholm and across Sweden where city authorities and utility companies have seized the initiative and delivered independently-managed carrier-neutral local fibre networks. The result? Vastly greater innovative service choices from a wide range of new high speed service providers who no longer have to go cap in hand for capacity from the incumbent telco. Would it work here? Is the current debate our chance to revisit the fundamental questions that were fudged at the time of BT’s privatisation and remain fudged despite the functional separation that introduced Openreach? Ultimately fibre will replace copper. In more ways than one this could be the end of the line.

This is your wake-up call. We are now beginning our final approach. Passengers can stay buckled up until we are at a complete standstill. All change. Please ensure that you remove all regulatory baggage. We wish you a pleasant onward journey.”