Monday, September 20, 2010

Rory Stewart, Ed Vaizey & pigeons: must be a rural broadband conference then!

Here's my report on Rory Stewart's broadband conference, as mentioned in my previous post. I make no apologies whatsoever for the length of this, so read on at your peril - you have been warned. And what a marvellous venue! I've driven past it loads of times on trips to the wonderful North Lakes, but I've never been inside before.

Anyway, to business: following Rory's welcome, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, set out the government's broadband policy to put the day into context. His speech echoed the announcements made at the previous BDUK industry day in July, but with some very interesting additions:
  • The government is committed to the rollout of NGA/USC as quickly in rural areas as in towns;
  • The government believes the market remains the best delivery vehicle, but defines "market" in its broadest sense to include communities as well as major players, with the government only intervening where absolutely necessary (for example, where the market won’t ever deliver);
  • With regard to existing networks, the re-use of public sector infrastructure is a key enabler, with the government intending to issue guidance for local authorities in the next few months to set out this opportunity and encourage this approach  further;
  • The government is committed to open access in all senses, for example, through consideration of how to enable access to electricity pylons as well as telcos' ducts for routing fibre, to reduce the cost of new investment;
  • 63 proposals have been received in relation to the three proposed superfast broadband pilots, 11 are being taken forward with the three final projects expected to commence in mid-2011;
  • Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) will become more outward-facing, publishing a paper before the end of the year on where the UK stands in terms of broadband and the government's intentions going forward (re-use of existing public sector infrastructure got another mention here too).
Ed had also made himself useful the previous day as well, switching on a new fibre optic link for Alston's Cybermoor project in Nenthead. He also revealed during his speech that Rory the carrier pigeon (who was in fact a girl!) had won a race against rural broadband by delivering a USB memory stick more quickly than a computer was able to download the same data - more here, with the photographic evidence here.

Next up was Adrian Wooster, JON Exchange Director, to kick off the first panel session on not spots, rural needs and the potential of broadband. Adrian painted a rather bleak picture of what the market is (or rather isn't) likely to deliver of itself: 36% of the Penrith & the Border constituency is likely to receive a broadband service below the 2Mbps USC, considerably worse than the national average. Competition is limited, with BT the only option outside Penrith across the entire constituency. Data from the department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) shows that 75% of the population is deeply unlikely to get NGA under current provision, ranking 609th out of 650 constituencies. Interestingly, other countries' USC plans would also struggle in the region: Finland has committed to providing fibre to within 2km of every community (where community is defined as anywhere with population of more than 70 people per square km), but this would make little difference to Penrith & The Border, as the population is too sparse for even this to have an impact.

Stuart Burgess, the Rural Advocate, then reported that broadband access and mobile coverage are now the second most important issue (after affordable housing), with estate agents revealing that broadband and mobile access are the first things enquirers ask about in relation to rural properties. The 2010 Rural Advocate Report sets out the huge economic benefits broadband can bring to rural areas. Richard Walters, CEO of Commendium, was unequivocal: the emerging demand for NGA is clear and we must invest to solve tomorrow's rather than today's problems. The sign Richard wants on the Cumbria/Lancashire border by 2015 received a very warm response: "Welcome to Cumbria, the 100Mbps county".

William Davies, Vice President of Technology Policy for RIM, said that a combination of technologies are required, as mobile/wireless can’t fix problems by themselves. He attributed the overwhelming of 3G networks being due to incorrect tariffing: all you can eat data tariffs can't and won't drive the necessary investment in upgrading networks to cope with increasing demand; if you use more, you should pay more (see this post for my thoughts on differentiated services and pricing, in the context of the net neutrality debate). The first panel session closed with a presentation from Andrew McClelland, Director of Operations at the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) on the ever-increasing importance of e-retailing to the economy.

Bill Murphy, Managing Director for NGA, BT, then gave an overview of BT's NGA activities and plans, re-stating BT's commitment to delivering NGA to 66% of the UK by 2015. There was some vigorous disagreement with BT's claim that 99% of the UK has access to broadband, a disagreement borne out by the data presented by Adrian Wooster earlier in the day.

The next panel session focussed on solutions for the backhaul, the most difficult element to provision in rural areas. Barry Forde, Director of the Storey Creative Industries Centre in Lancaster and architect of the CLEO broadband network, set out the very strong case for using existing education networks to provide rural backhaul. For further information about the broadband infrastructure currently serving schools, see the 2009 National Education Network Services Survey, these case studies prepared as part of JANET(UK)'s local loop unbundling project and this previous post. Education broadband infrastructure is facing some threats at the moment though, as I mentioned in this previous post, with further detail in this report I prepared for the Education Network Governing Council earlier this year. A crying shame if these issues were to derail such an important opportunity? Chris Smedley, Chief Executive of GEO, then re-stated the importance of NGA but queried how much it should cost and how it should be paid for. His view was that public money should support investment in fibre builds that can be used and re-used as widely as possible, endorsing Barry's suggestions. Chris also suggested that the last major investment in national infrastructure was the building of motorway networks, which were built despite few people (at the time) having cars...can you see what he did there?

Aidan Paul, Chief Executive of Vtesse Networks, delivered a very interesting overview of their approach to provisioning the final third, citing developments in Hatt and Saltash in Cornwall, Broughton near Huntingdon and Birch Green in Hertfordshire. Aidan stated that the final third exists in areas served by market 2 & 3 exchanges as well as market 1 exchanges (according to Ofcom's classifications, where a market 1 exchange is one where the only broadband services available are based on BT Wholesale's offerings, so an exchange that hasn't been unbundled, whereas market 2 and 3 exchanges offer a choice of 2-3 or 4+ operators respectively). The final third is spread right across the UK, broadband availability being dependent upon distances from exchanges. He also asked why Vtesse pays 20 times more tax than BT on its infrastructure, a problem that is apparently (much to Rory Stewart's delight) all Henry VIII’s fault, in that he established the basis for the current rating system (more on fibre tax issues here). Aidan also asserted that BT supplies dark fibre to itself under terms that it won’t provide to others, and flagged the opportunities for low cost fibre deployment (“slotting”) as an important  part of a shopping list for what needs to be in place to facilitate NGA.

Gareth Davies, Competition Policy Director at Ofcom, wrapped up the morning with an update on Ofcom's wholesale local access and wholesale broadband access market reviews (more on these here). The conclusions from the local access review are due at the end of this month with the wholesale broadband access findings due in November. Encouraging effective competition in all areas is a priority for Ofcom.

After lunch, the focus turned to the US, with updates on broadband policy developments from Susan Walthall, Acting Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the US Small Business Administration, and Erik Garr, now of Diamond Management and Technology Consultants and previously General Manager for the FCC's National Broadband Plan ("365 pages of good, clean telecommunications fun", apparently!). See this post for further details of the economic impact of broadband, and here, here and here for more on the National Broadband Plan, with some important input from EDUCAUSE described here. Erik set out the rationale for the plan, reporting that the the US faces similar rural challenges to the UK in many areas, with similar difficulties in establishing the business case for rural broadband investment. He sees spectrum policy as crucial, in that effectively deployed mobile networks could offer real competition to fixed line (DSL) services, driving further investment and innovation as a result. He also flagged the plan's proposals to make changes to the e-Rate funding mechanism to support schools and districts to build their own networks (more on this here).

The final panel session focussed on community build out, with input from Malcolm Corbett, Chief Executive of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), who provided an overview of some of the "JFDI" projects (Digital Region in South Yorkshire, FibreSpeed in Wales) that INCA had been set up to bring together. Lindsey Annision, Marketing and Web Consultant made an impassioned plea for "gigabuckets" to supply all rural communities with broadband in a way that fixes not just today's but tomorrow's problems as well, and rightly asserted that the savings (at all levels) that will accrue from broadband investment will far outweigh the installation costs. Lindsey also later made the important observation that consumers don't just want to "lean back and take Hollywood content" - they want to make and share their own too, underlining the importance of symmetric bandwidth. Next Daniel Heery, as founder and manager, gave an overview of the Cybermoor project, inviting people to visit on the national Social Enterprise Day on 18th November 2010.

Nicholas James, CEO of UK Broadband, then described the opportunities for using wireless in the backhaul. UK Broadband are the largest national holder of spectrum, which can be used for wireless backhaul of up to 1Gbps. To counter claims on the unsuitability of wireless, James commented that 500+ 4G networks are being built around the world at the moment, which will deliver reliable services. UK Broadband are prepared to provide services at or below cost with appropriate revenue sharing agreements in place, and want to work with local projects and communities. His view is that wireless complements fixed line and he also queried how long it will be before all TV is delivered over broadband, rather than broadcast, as is already starting to happen in other parts of the world. He flagged the importance of separating local access from backhaul and ensuring that backhaul is offered on open access basis. Chris Conder, advisor on community broadband, then introduced a video that was in many ways the highlight of the day: JFDI again - just farmers doing it, a DIY fibre installation with the backhaul provided via wireless.

In summing up, Barry Forde re-stated that while backhaul is the key problem facing rural communities, the solution is already in place – re-use the public sector broadband infrastructure currently serving schools, local authorities, healthcare and other services. Rory Stewart then closed the conference by reiterating his intentions: he wants the USC to be in place for everyone in the region and for NGA to be available to the majority by the end of 2012, three years ahead of the government's targets.

Videos from the day are available here, a replay of the day's live blog is here and other reports of the day are available here and here. The twitter hash tag for the event, #rbc10, is still getting plenty of traffic almost 48 hours after the conference closed, and an interesting way of gathering together information from twitter is here. The Country Land and Business Association have issued a statement praising the event:
"The CLA says that the Penrith and the Border Broadband Conference, held on Saturday 18 September, was a major step forward in the battle to bring broadband to rural areas, and particularly welcomed the pledge by Broadband Minister Ed Vaizey that Government would allow rural communities to connect to existing public sector fibre networks."
Coverage from Computer Weekly here, here and here, with much more to follow I'm sure - here's coverage from the local News & Star paper.

Loads and loads to think about, but for me the main take-away was the need to firm up the opportunity of using school broadband infrastructure. The potential is there, and is increasingly being recognised, which is great, but what needs to be in place to make this happen? There are issues to resolve at all levels - from how to square such an approach with state aid requirements at the top, to how to "plug in" to school networks at the bottom, with many additional issues at all points in between. But none of them are or should be show-stoppers, especially if the enthusiasm and can-do approach so much in evidence on Saturday can go on to infect a wider audience.

When and where is the next one going to be then?

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