Thursday, November 25, 2010

NextGen10 conference report (day 1) - plus ça change...


...plus c'est la même chose? A little unfair perhaps, as there have been many developments since NextGen09, which were reported over the two days of the conference. Also, attendance was at capacity, a clear indication of the ever increasing recognition of the importance of broadband access. But at the same time it seems some very significant obstacles and problems remain to be addressed, which is concerning.

In his keynote address on day 1, BT's Bill Murphy was at pains to point out just how much BT were doing in support of UK NGA: "no other company in the world is investing as much in fibre without public sector support or a regime that allow for greater returns", apparently. An interesting line to take. The second part of his statement is clearly a not very oblique reference to (criticism of?) the UK's regulatory regime. But surely any public sector support (which he would appear to be asking for in the first part of his statement) should be conditional upon appropriate regulation, to ensure taxpayers' interests are addressed first, with shareholders' interests second? BT wants the best of both worlds here it seems, to have its cake and eat it. You can't have it both ways?

Recent developments in Cornwall ("the most ambitious rural broadband project in the world") were also flagged in Bill's presentation, about which more later. A couple of interesting additional facts and figures cropped up too: of the £830m announced for broadband in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October 2010, £230m will come from the digital switchover, with the remainder from the BBC licence fee, to be allocated in £150m chunks annually from 2013. This last bit was news to me and two things struck me: a) it's not very much money, given the scale of the task (which we already knew), and b) we've got several years to wait before these funds become available. All of which puts significant additional pressure on the government's already ambitious target to ensure the UK has the best superfast broadband in Europe within the lifetime of this parliament.

Some interesting points were made in the subsequent panel session, the first of the conference, on approaches to NGA. Dave Carter, head of the Manchester Digital Development Agency, pointed out that many families now have no landline, relying totally on mobile telephony (an issue Becta also encountered as part of its Home Access programme). FTTC solutions are thus likely to be of little relevance to them. For more on this, see Ofcom's 2010 Communications Market Report, pages 337-338 - apparently 15% of households did not have a landline in Q1 2010. The point was also made that it's expensive for operators to work with multiple small community projects, and the thorny issue of business rates on fibre was raised for the first time here too. It struck me that in relation to this first point, publicly owned or community interest, not-for-profit vehicles could provide a solution, if they were purposely structured to deal with such small-scale projects, as well as being equipped to procure wholesale services on an open access basis from telcos that can't or won't deal with small concerns. A man in the middle if you like. NYnet is a good, successful example of this kind of procurement vehicle; could local authority/regional public networks be restructured to function similarly?

Next up was Peter Ludin, Vice President EMEA of Draka Telecom Solutions. One of his slides showed a pie chart revealing that approximately 75% of fibre deployment costs relate to expenditure other than equipment - civil works, installation and project management being the main costs here. He also flagged the importance of planning, using geographic data and software tools to develop cost estimates to inform investment. There seemed to be a parallel with the approach JANET(UK)'s LLU reports can facilitate, in terms of planning a local authority or regional WAN based on BT exchanges.

The next panel session, on open access networks and infrastructure sharing, was very revealing. Chris Smedley, Chief Executive of Geo set out the limitations of what's currently proposed in terms of opening up access to BT's ducts and poles, as announced by Ofcom last month. This was news to me, Pauline Rigby has an excellent account of the detail of this on her site here and the issue was also reported by Computer Weekly. This issue (specifically, that bidders don't know what their input costs will be) was a key reason why Geo and others pulled out of the Cornwall NGA project, leaving BT as the only bidder, and places a question mark over the likelihood of effective competition in procurements for the four BDUK pilot projects if it remains unresolved. An additional issue here is that other sources of funding for the pilots (for example, from Europe) are time limited and will be lost if this impasse isn't revolved prior to the commencement of tendering exercises for the pilots.

Chris also set out Geo's definition of open access networks, which seemed right on the money to me, more on this in this excellent Geo white paper. Chris said that a network that's truly open to all players is "the best place for public sector investment" and I entirely agree. Gareth Davies, Ofcom's Competition Policy Director was also on the panel and did his best to explain why the duct and pole sharing proposals are the way they are, but it did seem to me that Ofcom were (as ever?) rather caught up in their own peculiar and impenetrable internal logic on this one. My guess is that this is an inevitable consequence of the complexity of their relationship with BT, but unfortunately it makes the lack of progress very frustrating for all the other parties involved, who simply want to get on with building the NGA networks that they know their customers want.

Next up was Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, reprising his appearance at NextGen09 when he spoke for the opposition. He gave an overview of the government's intentions for this area, flagging that we should expect a strategy document (the coalition's take on the previous administration's Digital Britain report I guess) shortly. Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) launched their Beyond Broadband guide to NGA, which provides an excellent, concise summary of developments to date and future opportunities in this area. Malcolm was followed by Adrian Wooster, founder of the JON Exchange, which was launched earlier this month as "a wholesale marketplace that bridges the gap between service providers and the panoply of European access network owners" - a single source of alternative access networks, providing easy and consistent access to customers and a viable opportunity for network operators to demonstrate their open access credentials. Hopefully it will provide a solution to the question of how to persuade major players like BT, Sky and Virgin Media to allow their content to be delivered over networks they don't own and maintain themselves. I think this has to happen if the open access model is to gain credence and succeed in overcoming the inherent inertia in the current way of doing things?

The last keynote of day 1 was from Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, on the importance of involving our communities in broadband developments, highlighting the important evangelical role of the public sector in championing the benefits of broadband. For a further excellent insight from the RSA, have a look at this brilliant animation on changing education paradigms. Unfortunately I missed the last workshop, so that concludes my account of the first day. My report on day 2 to follow as soon as I've managed to decipher my scribbles. Back soon...

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