Lords slam government’s strategy-free broadband plan
The government got its priorities wrong, started with a “flawed prospectus”, and risks making the digital divide permanent unless it revises its non-existent broadband strategy, the House of Lords says.
“Access to the internet should be seen as a domestic essential and regarded as a key utility. The spectre of a widening digital divide is a profound source of concern which requires the government to address its origin with greater vigour than we believe is currently the case,” the lords’ communications committee says in its report on the UK’s broadband strategy published this morning.
It adds that current progress may prove illusory. “The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy,” committee chairman Lord Inglewood says in a comment on the report. He praised the government for addressing the issue of broadband especially in hard to reach areas. But it had not met its original brief.
“The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”
Government’s preoccupation with network speed has had a “detrimental effect” on policy-making and the long term national interest, and the lords were not clear why the original speed (24Mbps) was chosen. Moreover, the government did not have a plan to meet the European targets of 30Mbps for all, with 50% using a 100Mbps service by 2020.
The lords set out an alternative vision for Broadband Britain:
Every community should be within reach of an open access fibre optic ‘hub’
Every such hub should be fed by ample fibre optic cable, providing open access on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms to optical links back to the exchange, and back to the public internet— allowing third parties to build their own
local access networks to appropriate technical standards, using whichever technologies they choose, from that hub
For the hub to support backhaul for a wireless network where there is demand, so that consumers would have access to a wireless internet service from at least one of these hubs — assuming they can afford to do so.
This will allow different providers “contribute to the reach and resilience of our national connectivity” and allow all individuals to benefit from whichever services, including public ones, will run over it.
Government should focus on delivering a high-spec infrastructure that is future proof and built to last. “Fibre optic cable, the most future proof technology, must be driven out as close as possible to the eventual user,” they say.
The lords dismissed arguments against dark fibre, and aligned themselves with Europe. “We endorse the European Commission’s suggestion that open access to dark fibre at the cabinet-level should be introduced as a condition of BDUK’s umbrella state aid permission.”
The lords also want to see a competitive national market in dark fibre. “The exclusive ability of one provider to build a final fibre link is actually a categorical departure from the idea of an open access fibre optic hub … In fact, it well and truly puts the kibosh on the idea.
“While the government clearly considered the (dark fibre) proposal in general terms early on in their deliberations, it is fair to say now, that it has disappeared from their plans in implementation.”
The committee also recommend:
- that Ofcom actively considers changes to some aspects of the regulatory regime;
- that the government undertake a detailed costing of its proposal, not least because it removes the final mile – the most expensive per capita component of the network – from the costs requiring public subsidy;
- That the government pay “urgent attention” to the way public funds are being distributed, particularly the operation of the Rural Community Broadband Fund;
- and that government and industry consider switching terrestrial broadcast from the airwaves to the internet.
A DCMS spokesman says the goverment will respond in due course. Normally that’s about two months.
The Communications Management Association (CMA), which represents business communications users, says it is pleased the lords recognise that the provision of digital access networks should be considered a key part of the national infrastructure and as a strategic national asset.
“They have clearly understood that all parts of the UK economy are increasingly dependent on the quality of digital access and the open availability of competitive services that can be delivered via those local networks,” CMA chairman Michael Rowbory says.
The CMA is also pleased that the report highlights the needs of businesses as well as consumers. “For far too long it has been felt that the regulator has not held a properly informed regard for the needs of wealth-creating consumers.”
The CMA says claims that higher-quality business connectivity, in contrast to households, is readily available, if costly, are “disingenuous”.
“They overlook the fact that most new economic growth comes from micro and small enterprises whose needs overlap in cost, performance, flexibility, consistency and upload capabilities with those of many ordinary households,” Rowbury says.
The CMA has consistently pointed to factors other than headline ‘up to’ speeds, which it claims are rarely delivered. “If the need for future-proofed infrastructure investment is to be realised, this report can be regarded as a clarion call for fresh thinking in in terms of national priorities, network design and local management,” Rowbury says.
The lords’ comments on dark fibre will please former BT manager and now independent consultant David Brunnen. Speaking ahead of publication of the report he said it is ridiculous that many overlapping networks that taxpayers have paid for are not yet carrying services for the wider community.
“How many times do wavelengths on the same fibre have to be sold at full price before someone realises that we are being collectively ripped off?” he says.
Brunnen said access to dark fibre would be a huge boost for mobile networks. “The expansion of the mobile network infrastructure is hugely dependent on the fibre capacity available for vastly more but smaller base stations.”