At the end of last month, the House of Lords Communications Committee published the findings from its inquiry into the UK's broadband strategy (more here, including a link to the oral and written evidence received by the Committee).
The main recommendation of Broadband for all: an alternative vision can be summarised as "if I was going there, I wouldn't start from here". It argues that current UK Government broadband policy should start from first principles and fails to address this fundamental question:
"What should the UK’s broadband infrastructure look like in view of its place as a major strategic asset, at least on a par with the UK’s roads, railways and energy networks?"Instead, current policy focuses on using public funding to extend the reach of commercial provision and plans into areas the market will otherwise not reach (i.e. encourage suppliers to do more of what they're already doing), rather than being based upon a detailed assessment of and proper planning for the kind of broadband infrastructure the UK needs. Such a strategic focus on the sort of network the UK requires, rather than the sort of network the market is currently prepared to provide, is paralleled by the approach taken in Australia in my view. From the report's summary:
"Fundamentally, the Government’s strategy has fundamentally focused on the wrong part of the network—broadly speaking the outer edge and the margins, not the centre. We argue that the Government should be focusing on delivering a high spec infrastructure which 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. Then, as well as mandating open access to this optical fibre from the cabinet to the exchange, we need to ensure that there is open access to links between the exchanges that feed the cabinets, and to the higher level links into national and global networks. Just as there is national planning for the national, regional and local hubs of our transport network, so there should be national planning for a communications network of local, regional, national, and internet exchanges where different operators can site equipment and exchange traffic, all linked by ample optical fibre that is open to use by competing providers."The report makes the case for a national network of open access fibre-optic hubs:
"…our vision is of a robust and resilient national network linked primarily by optical connectivity, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs into or within reach of every community. This would allow diverse providers, large and small, to 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 in time to come...our view is that:
i) Every community should be within reach of an open access fibre-optic ‘hub’;
(ii) Every such hub should be fed by ample fibre-optic cable, providing open access to optical links back to the exchange, and back to the public internet—which will not be free, but made available on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, allowing third parties to build their own local access networks meeting appropriate technical standards, using whichever technologies they choose, from that hub;
(iii) At the very least, we expect a hub to be able to provide backhaul for a wireless network, where there is demand, so that premises would be able to gain access to a wireless internet service from at least one of these hubs—assuming they can afford to do so."
The report proposes that the Government undertakes a details costing of these proposals, on the basis that they are likely to provide more scalable, future-proof broadband services to everyone. This is in contrast to the 90% superfast availability set out in current plans, which it is argued risks creating a new digital divide between areas with basic and superfast connectivity.
The report also challenges current policy's focus on speeds, chiefly the definition of superfast broadband as above 24Mbps. This derives from Ofcom's context and summary for its 2010 consultations on the wholesale local access and wholesale broadband access markets, being the theoretical maximum possible download speed achievable over copper telephone lines via digital subscriber line (DSL) technologies:
"Super-fast broadband (i.e. broadband with speeds greater than 24Mbps) will provide consumers and businesses with higher speed and more capable services, which are likely to enable the use of a wide range of new and innovative applications. These could, for example, include super high definition and 3D video services, more effective teleworking and telemedicine."However the House of Lords report suggests that imposing such an arbitrary target impedes flexibility and takes connectivity options which could be viable in many areas out of the running:
“…we endorse the replacement of copper by fibre deeper into the network. However, there are indications that mandating this shift by means of a speed target has built inflexibility into the implementation of the current policy, with a number of undesirable consequences.
One of these was described by Rory Stewart MP, in reference to Northern Fells, an area in his constituency. Having formed plans to bring fibre within reach of its village, the community considered the use of the wireless technology, ‘white space’, as a way of reaching its outlying properties. The problem that arose was that white space spectrum is technically limited to delivering a maximum of roughly 15Mbps, and as this falls short of the Government’s targets, it is ineligible for public money, stranding the outliers with a lower level of service. As Rory Stewart MP put it: “I think it is about flexibility. I think it is about loosening the reins a little, loosening the criteria and being prepared to look at each case on its merits."
Curiously, by mandating a specific speed target, with the intention of pushing fibre—and by extension, enhanced capacity—deeper into the network, the Government have in some cases ensured that communities reliant on more experimental, innovative technological solutions will not get any enhancement at all. In short, because their plans do not meet the Government’s aspirations in full, they will be condemned to nothing.”
The phrase "loosening the reins" is key here; the focus on speed "inevitably forces Government to make dogmatic statements about things which are better left flexible." Ironically, the report suggests that its proposals for local fibre hubs may in part be met by the Government's proposals for its Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) - the focus of which is the provision of voice rather than data. This is seen as an opportunity missed in one sense, but offers a potential remedy in another:
"It should be a fundamental 'design principle' of the Mobile Infrastructure Project that where mobile coverage is being widened for the purpose of eliminating voice not-spots, coverage for data is widened and enhanced at the same time.
In addition, we note that BDUK is considering implementing the MIP objectives by means of "an investment by government in building Serviced Sites… in an appropriate location to serve one or more not-spots, where site facilities, power, backhaul, connectivity, cabinet and mast space were made ready and available for 'occupation' by all mobile operators."
In other words, the MIP, in establishing a number of 'base stations' or 'serviced sites' with fibre backhaul, may bring about something equivalent to the open access fibre-optic hub which we introduced in Chapter 3. In fact, should the MIP be implemented along the lines outlined above, these serviced sites will be procured with clear open access stipulations, allowing any mobile network provider to set up their own access network services from those points.
There is a technically strong argument, therefore, given the virtually unbounded capacity of fibre, that it would be a significant enhancement to incorporate into the MIP plan the following stipulation: that access be open not only for mobile network providers, but also for any prospective network provider to build out an access network from that point, should they see a commercial opportunity or otherwise believe there is value in doing so.
The Government should consider the potential for serviced sites constructed as part of the MIP to be used as open access fibre-optic hubs more generally, from which independent third parties could extend out their own alternative, local access networks."The report is also critical of another part of Government strategy, the Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), on the basis of the uncertainty over where investments supported by the fund should be targeted:
"....the RCBF is only available "if your community is in a rural location identified as being in the 10% hard to reach area covered by your Local Authority's Local Broadband Plan." In other words, it is only available if you are excluded from your Local Authority's Local Broadband Plan.
Miles Mandelson, Chairman, Great Asby Broadband, explained that when local authorities are asked whether they can guarantee that a specific community falls outside the boundaries of its roll-out, the answer is:
"'No, we cannot. We have not finished our procurement. We do not know what the boundaries are going to be and the situation keeps changing. But, if you like, you can exclude yourself from the county council roll-out and we will not come anywhere near you.'"
As there is equally no guarantee of inclusion within the RCBF scheme, communities are naturally wary. After all, as Miles Mandelson put to us, if: "their application [to the RCBF also] fails… they are then left with nothing more than the 2Mbps universal service commitment (USC)."
As a result, remote communities—particularly those engaged as part of BDUK's pilot scheme—are being forced to take on a considerable amount of work and responsibility, with the entirely likely result that they will ultimately be told they fall outside the boundary of the roll-out.
A further failure of the RCBF arises from its specific stipulation that communities in the final 10% fund the construction of their access networks with no guarantee of grant payment from Defra; they will only be able to recover the expenditure once they have provided evidence that they have paid for it—and even then there is no guarantee. According to Defra's RCBF Handbook:
"In simple terms, you will need to spend first—and then claim later."
In our view, it is ludicrous to expect all remote communities to be able to provide the levels of funding required to build broadband access networks in their areas. While there may be some which can, inevitably others will not be able to do so. The RCBF process, therefore, will present a number of communities, whom it is intended to assist, with a Catch 22...We urge the Government to provide a more coherent mechanism for the provision of enhanced broadband infrastructure in the final 10% than currently is the case with the Rural Community Broadband Fund. In particular, a new mechanism for distributing funds must meet the criticism that its predecessor was flawed in assuming all communities have the capital required, up front, to invest in their own access network."The report agrees the Government is correct to focus on a universal service commitment (USC, for which it is politically accountable) rather than a universal service obligation (USO, which would make industry directly accountable). However, the growing move towards broadcast TV being delivered via IPTV may change this in time, as well as freeing up valuable spectrum which could be put to other purposes:
"It is likely that IPTV services will become ever more widespread, and eventually the case for transferring the carriage of broadcast content, including public service broadcasting, from spectrum to the internet altogether will become overwhelming. This may well be a more sensible arrangement, as spectrum is perfectly suited to mobile applications...it might be argued that spectrum’s current use for fixed, broadcast purposes is wasteful.
We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare.
As and when this occurs, and particularly if Public Service Broadcasting channels begin to be delivered primarily through the internet, the case for a USO, echoing that for television and radio, will become, in our view, significantly stronger.
While we do not support the introduction of a USO at present, we do believe that broadcast media will increasingly come to be delivered via the internet. As and when that happens, and particularly in circumstances where this applies to PSB channels, the argument for recommending a USO becomes stronger. The Government should begin now to give this active consideration."The report also echoes the calls made elsewhere for the scope of Ofcom's physical infrastructure access remedies on BT (duct and pole access) to be widened:
"In our view, the benefits of opening up the restrictions on PIA are likely to be significant, particularly were policy to be re-oriented towards the establishment of open access fibre-optic hubs, as we advocate. Removing the restrictions on PIA may, of course, have knock-on effects for the effectiveness and coherence of other aspects of the overall regulatory edifice. We, therefore, recommend that Ofcom evaluates alternative approaches to the regulation of the broadband market as a whole, in line with EU guidelines."Finally, just as with the transition from analogue to digital TV, it may be appropriate for Government to mandate a "fibre switch over" in the future:
“…a new digital divide may emerge between those with respectable and those with elite connectivity, separating those who can access what will in some cases be critical public services or public interest content from those who cannot. As a result, just as with digital switchover, a time may come when it is appropriate for the Government to mandate a form of Universal Service Obligation in the shape of a similar measure which might be called fibre switch over.
We recommend that consideration should be given over time by the Government, Ofcom and the industry as to when and under what conditions fibre switchover would be appropriate and what implications it would have.”It will be interesting to monitor if and how the Government's broadband policy takes on board the report's recommendations.