Comms policy in chaos, and/or UK govt abandons competition ethic
David Harrington, spokesman on regulatory affairs at the Communications Management Association, was kind enough to respond to my invitation to give us a view from the business communications users’ perspective on the government’s plans and procesess to develop the next Communications Bill. This is what he says.
Either government policy on the communications sector is in chaos, or it’s founded on a deliberate, laissez faire approach that lets the industry slide into a state where infrastructure competition no longer has a role to play.
On the one hand there is an apparently disjointed programme of handing out taxpayers’ cash, in which several Whitehall departments are engaged against a backdrop of EU rules and (some) EU money, overshadowed by the fallout from Leveson. On the other we are seeing Openreach extend its dominance in the provision of broadband access and the MNOs moving ever closer in sharing their physical infrastructure. There are Ofcom-imposed restrictions on how BT’s physical infrastructure can be accessed and there is a marked reluctance to encourage (never mind support) the smaller players in the market for FTTC/FTTH.
Oddly enough, there’s a certain synergy between these seemingly binary positions: the chaos theory, while superficially politically embarrassing, is small beer in comparison to Leveson and the Euro crisis and is a convenient mask for laissez faire.
It seems likely, therefore, that the era of the “railtrack philosophy” is creeping up on us, driven not by regulatory intervention on a scale larger than that seen during functional separation, but by a realisation that there is only one company with the clout to fill the final third with fibre (of some sort or another). Meanwhile the government’s limp-wristed approach to the 4G auction debacle encourages site sharing and wider cooperation in infrastructure between the MNOs. It’s becoming ever clearer that the Commission’s (and hence the UK’s) devotion to infrastructure competition is at the end of the road.
While lack of competition in the provision of wireless, copper or fibre has been referred to historically as the “bit-pipe nightmare”, that was at another time and in different economic circumstances. It’s entirely feasible to postulate that a national carrier would thrive on carriage fees charged to OTT players and would innovate and invest in response not only to regulatory pressure but also to demands from content providers and end users. Competition would be fierce at the service and content level. Current issues such as net neutrality and the lack of a broadband USO would be seen in an entirely different light against a regulatory policy refined for a utility sector that would be similar to, but rather different from, the other utilities.
Would a national ‘digital railtrack’ be good or bad news for business customers? Would it improve UK’s position in the ECTA scorecard or in OECD league tables? It’s not possible to be certain at this point, but UKplc is unlikely to be worse off. The next five years are going to be exceptionally interesting.
Harrington adds that CMA will press for Ofcom be required to give business users as much attention as they do the citizen-consumer. On content competition it will press for a stronger “open access, carrier neutral” stance in regulatory policy.