Wednesday, November 21, 2012

European Commission clears UK umbrella support scheme for broadband investment

The European Commission has (finally) approved Broadband Delivery UK's application to act as a "national competence centre", enabling it to work with local authorities to ensure that urban and rural broadband investment projects are in keeping with European state aid and competition regulations:
""BDUK, as a national competence centre, will assist local granting authorities in designing and implementing successful broadband support measures in line with EU competition rules. The umbrella scheme will be a big step towards the achievement of the EU Digital Agenda targets and a strong impetus for growth in the UK" said Commission Vice President in charge of competition policy Joaquín Almunia. The UK notified plans to set up an umbrella scheme for implementing around 140 local broadband support projects without individual state aid notifications to the Commission. The Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme aims to provide as many UK homes and businesses as possible with access to superfast broadband infrastructure in the so-called "final third" areas. These areas are typically low-density, rural areas, where commercial operators are unlikely to invest in high quality broadband networks. The total value of aid to be delivered by the scheme is estimated around GBP 1.5 billion (€1.8 billion)."
DCMS press release here; coverage from the BBC here and Br0kenTeleph0n3 here. The final text of the decision (which isn't yet available) should make for interesting reading when it's released, if the previous notification in relation to Birmingham's broadband investment plans is anything to go by. Let's hope that this latest approval goes unchallenged though.

Spectrum & wireless developments

Lots of spectrum and wireless updates recently, over and above Ofcom's announcement earlier this month of the final regulations and timetable for the 4G mobile spectrum auction.

DCMS has published a new report (news item here) on the impact of radio spectrum on the UK economy, which found its use is worth more than £50 billion a year. Coverage from ISP Review here and the FT here ("Value of spectrum up 25% in five years").

Ofcom has published plans "to enable the release of new airwaves for future generations of mobile devices, which will help meet consumers’ growing demand for data on the move" (press release here and further information for consumers here). According to Ofcom, 20 million Gigabytes of data is now being consumed in a month over the country’s mobile networks – more than twice as much as last year (9 million Gigabytes) -  the equivalent of downloading 5 billion music tracks. By 2030, demand for mobile data could be 80 times higher than today. Ofcom is preparing plans now to support the release of spectrum for future mobile services, possibly ‘5G’, when the spectrum becomes available. Coverage from ISP Review here and the BBC here.

The ITU has also published a new report on spectrum (Digital Dividend: insights for spectrum decisions, press release here) focussing on the benefits arising from freeing up spectrum by moving TV broadcasting from analogue to digital, a process now complete in the UK.

Ireland recently completed its 4G spectrum auction, with the winning bids much higher than had been anticipated. According to the FT ("Ireland’s 4G auction exceeds expectations"), "Ireland has sold its 4G high-speed mobile-phone spectrum to four existing operators for €855m in an auction that netted more cash than expected for its heavily indebted government. Vodafone, Telefónica, Meteor and Three all won significant slices of spectrum in a competition, which shares many similarities with the UK’s 4G auction due to begin early next year." More from Ireland's regulator ComReg here and here.

A recent decision from the European Commission "paves the way for 4G in Europe":
"The European Commission has today decided to add another 120 MHz to the radio spectrum portfolio for 4G technologies, such as LTE (Long Term Evolution), around the 2 GHz band. This band is currently solely used for UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) wireless communications, known as 3G networks. The Decision makes it mandatory for Member States to open the relevant spectrum by 30 June 2014 at the latest, and lays down harmonised technical conditions to allow coexistence between different technologies. On this basis the EU will enjoy up to twice the amount of spectrum for high speed wireless broadband as in the United States, namely around 1000 MHz. The Commission's decision means mobile operators will have more opportunities to invest in improved mobile networks, which benefits the whole economy, and consumers will, over time, enjoy faster data transfers and more broadband services."
Coverage from ISP Review here and ThinkBroadband here. Finally, some speculation from ISP Review and ThinkBroadband about future white space technology possibilities.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ofcom finalises 4G auction rules

Ofcom today released the final regulations and a timetable for the 4G mobile spectrum auction (press release here). This follows the publication of its plans for the auction process in July 2012.

The process commences on 11 December 2012, the provisional date for the submission of applications by prospective bidders, with new services expected to be launched in May/June 2013. Ofcom has published a full statement on the auction together with a new 4G consumer page which provides an overview of what we should expect from 4G services.

Today's announcement hopefully represents the end of a long period of uncertainty over the future of 4G in the UK. 4G services are already available in some parts of the country, following Ofcom's decision to allow Everything Everywhere (now re-branded as EE) to launch 4G services at  the end of October 2012 in advance of the auction, based on its existing spectrum holdings. This led to threats of litigation from the other UK mobile operators: unable to launch rival services until they have acquried the necessary spectrum via Ofcom's auction, other operators initially viewed Ofcom's decision as giving EE an unfair first-mover advantage, distorting the marketplace.

Peace was subsequently brokered in talks between Culture Secretary Maria Miller, Ofcom and operators at the beginning of October 2012 on the basis of proposals to accelerate the roll-out of 4G services following the auction process. Given that mobile broadband usage continues to increase rapidly (according to Ofcom's 2012 Communications Market Report, four in ten adults in the UK now own a smartphone, with 42% of these saying their smartphone is the most important device for accessing the internet), 4G services can't come soon enough.

Coverage and comment on today's announcement from ISP Review and the BBC.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

BT to reach two thirds of UK premises with superfast broadband by Spring 2014

BT last week announced that it will reach its target of delivering superfast broadband to two thirds of premises in the UK ahead of its already accelerated schedule. From the BT press release:
"BT today announced a further acceleration of its commercial fibre roll-out, stating it will pass two thirds of UK premises during Spring 2014. This is at least 18 months ahead of its original target of the end of 2015. The news has been welcomed by the Government, as the early completion of this footprint will enable BT to focus further on working with the public sector to extend fibre to the ‘final third’ of the country, in areas where it has won BDUK contracts. This work will help the UK to continue its climb up the broadband league tables, in line with the Government’s vision of having the best superfast broadband network amongst major European countries by 2015...This is the second time that BT has accelerated the programme, having previously brought forward the completion date from the end of 2015 to the end of 2014. Openreach, the part of BT that is rolling out the technology, is succeeding in delivering its target well ahead of schedule as a result of learning lessons along the way and improving its processes. The business is also recruiting additional engineers to help with fibre installations, with volumes expected to increase in line with the footprint expansion."
Coverage from ISP Review, ThinkBroadband and ZDnet.

Government response to House of Lords broadband report

Last month the Government released its response to the House of Lords report Broadband for All: an alternative vision (more here) published earlier this year.

The House of Lords report criticised a number of aspects of the Government's broadband policy; for example, the Lords report asserted that the focus should be on ensuring coverage above speeds. It also argued that current policy is simply pushing the market to do more of what it's already doing, rather than setting out a blueprint for the kind of broadband infrastructure the UK requires.

However, the response shows the Government is unrepentant:
"The Government considered a range of different delivery options prior to embarking on its current approach, including taking into account the cost and need for delivering sustainable solutions that do not require continued government subsidy. It considered that the market was best placed to determine which solutions and network design could deliver affordable and sustainable services to consumers – with technology neutrality key."
The response also refutes the suggestion that more should be done to ensure equivalent access and encourage competition:
"The Government is content that the remedies that Ofcom imposes (such as those in the local loop unbundling market or the recent physical infrastructure access requirements), in both instances, are considered to be proportionate and targeted at ensuring the development of effective and sustainable competition."
Similarly, the response challenges the accusation that current policy is predicated on precise speed targets:
"Current policy is not built around precise speed targets. We have defined superfast broadband as a speed greater than 24 Mbps, in line with the definition adopted by Ofcom in a 2010 report and the BDUK Programme Delivery Model. That speed represented the limit of what was deliverable over copper lines using ADSL2 technology. Superfast broadband therefore represents a step change in terms of capability compared to what was generally available to consumers in 2010…the minimum target speed of 2 Mbps for those we will not be able to reach with superfast broadband by 2015 is also based on the delivery of a basic capability rather than a focus on a specific speed." 
Also of interest in this context is the note that Ofcom are to "publish the first European scorecard by the end of the year", which will form the starting point for evaluating whether the UK has the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015 in keeping with the Government's ambition. The response downplays the House of Lords report's suggestion that the Government should seek to explore transferring all terrestrial broadcast TV to delivery via the Internet to free up spectrum:
"The Government believes that it would be premature to consider such a move at this time, as it will be some time before an appropriate level of broadband coverage and access matches that available for Digital Terrestrial Television, as the Committee has identified. The Government recognises that there is an increasing number of television services delivered over the internet, but believes consumers should have the choice to decide how best to view and consume content."
All in all, the response seems to have been drafted so as to draw a line under the House of Lords report, with little if any change to current broadband policy seeming likely to ensue as a result. Coverage from ISP Review here.