Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

The politics of fibre

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Alongside its annual results, BT announced its plans for an expansion of its investment in fibre earlier today. The clear link between the two is that the cost reductions and greater efficiencies identified in the company’s financial reporting have freed sufficient resources for an acceleration of the investment programme so as to allow a further £1bn to be put into fibre projects, extending the reach to two-thirds of UK homes by 2015.

Current investment plans had envisaged 40% of UK homes being fibred up by 2012: thus, an expansion of 67% in the investment budget brings about the same percentage expansion in the number of homes within the reach of a fibre network at the local level. This is interesting in itself, since cost models predict that fibre investment should become more expensive on a per home basis the further investment travels, although this seems to apply largely only once fibre roll-out has been extended into rural areas, i.e. above about 58% of homes (Figure 1.5).

(Incidentally, the Analysys Mason model looks to remain fairly accurate at this point: it seems to predict that, with an investment of £1.5bn in fibre to the cabinet solutions, BT ought to reach about 46% of homes (compared to the 40% in the company’s plans); while a total investment of £2.5bn ought to see it through to about 72% (compared to ‘around two-thirds’). Either the model is slightly out, and the costs associated with roll-out to particular stages are slightly higher than envisaged; or else BT’s mix of fibre to the cabinet and fibre to the home solutions has raised the cost slightly, since the model is based only on the former. The BBC news report of today’s story identifies that around one in four of all homes envisaged as being covered by fibre by 2015 will have fibre to the home – and, therefore, much faster connection speeds. This would seem to suggest that the Analysys Mason model actually slightly under-estimates the cost of fibre roll-out.)

The announcement of BT’s roll-out plans has clearly been well-timed, given the events of the last seven days; and appears to put BT on the front foot.

Firstly, this takes BT to what we might call the ‘Digital Britain’ point – i.e. the two-thirds of homes that ‘the market’ would identify as being suitable for fibre investment. Taking fibre installation beyond this was intended to be the purpose of the ‘Final Third’ fund, raised by the landline duty, which of course has now been scrapped – and without actual plans for its replacement which are more than mere suggestions.

Secondly, the plans will achieve download speeds of (up to) 40 Mbps. The Tories’ manifesto commitment was to getting ‘a majority’ of UK homes wired to (up to) 100 Mbps connections by 2017. BT’s current plans seem to indicate that, by 2015, only around 17% of UK homes will have download speeds at this level. If the manifesto commitment is to be realisable – though today’s reporting seems to indicate that Digital Britain may well not be a priority for the new government – then plans need to be made for how this is going to be achieved. This is not the same as what also needs to be done to roll-out broadband in rural areas (into the ‘final third’) – which mission also needs to be accomplished – since this 17% seems to leave plenty more homes in urban areas with download speeds of much less than 100 Mbps.

Thirdly, Ian Livingston’s announcement contains a strong caveat: that the plans assume ‘an acceptable environment for investment’. This is clearly critical and is an evident acknowledgement not only that the regulatory environment plays an important role in investment decisions, but also that the change in government brings uncertainties in this area which will need to be settled. Inevitably so. But what matters here is that the announcement of the plans now indicates that the existing environment, both known and in the pipeline, is acceptable in terms of the plans – what is unknown is whether that will change and, if so, what impact that will have on the investment. The caveat is a clear indication that the plans are predicated on at least the continuation of the current regulatory environment (if not its further improvement) and that any deterioration may well lead to a reconsideration of them.

How the government responds will be interesting.

In terms of BT – well, it’s clear that more needs to be done to get Britain faster online so as to realise the benefits of Digital Britain, though the importance in this of a healthy, financially strong BT needs not to be forgotten (as well as that the company is still rebuilding its profitability). It should also be remembered that the expansion of the investment in fibre will be ‘managed within current levels of capital expenditure’ – something which implies cut-backs in expenditure on investment in other areas.

A new statutory duty for Ofcom to promote investment in the communications infrastructure in its approach to regulatory decisions would help enormously right now…

Written by Calvin

13/05/2010 at 5:02 pm

UN launches Broadband Commission

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The International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the UN, has set up a Broadband Commission whose aims will be to define strategies for rolling out broadband networks worldwide and to examine the applications for the improvement in the delivery of a wide range of social services.

An impressive list of global private sector business leaders, UN agencies, regulatory bodies and politicians, including the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, are to sit on the Commission, which will present findings to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals review summit in September. The Commissioners are intended to provide ‘expert input’ alongside an analysis of the deployment of broadband at all stages of economic development, with the ultimate intention of providing ‘practical recommendations on the possible routes towards the goal of high-speed networks at affordable prices.’

Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of the ITU, commented that:

In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power… Not only does broadband deliver benefits across every sector of society, but it also helps promote social and economic development, and will be key in helping us get the Millennium Development Goals back on track.

There’s nothing much wrong with that, and it helps to reinforce the notion that the developing world does – perhaps controversially – need modems and routers just as much as it needs other basic essentials as a means of delivering the social and economic benefits that will improve life expectancy and the social situation. So, the initiative is welcome, although it is important to emphasise that it needs indeed to look at the full range of ‘possible routes’. Whether decent debate about the range of ways of potentially achieving these goals is likely to ensue from the Commission’s appointments, and the short time-scale for its work to be concluded, is a moot point. Alternative visions than ones based on deregulation and the removal of barriers, and on a centre stage for competition, are both possible and need to be explored if the initiative is to achieve its aims.

Written by Calvin

13/05/2010 at 12:18 am

everything, everywhere

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So, it’s not going to be T-Orange after all, then. T-Mobile and Orange have resisted the temptation of the obvious and have decided to run in a completely different direction, calling their joint venture everything, everywhere – perhaps a slightly hyperbolic name for a mobile company, even if it is the largest one in the UK, and one which appears something of a mouthful in comparison to the available competition (it has more syllables than the three other network operators put together).

Its ‘vision’ includes a single ‘super-network’ giving ‘unsurpassed coverage and capacity’ for customers (though 3 might take issue with this bit), and at a lesser impact on the environment. Few details are as yet available other than that the company will seek to combine both the Orange and T-Mobile networks and, by cutting out duplication, reduce the number of stations and sites that the company uses (which currently stand at some 27,000). Nevertheless, how this network looks, and operates, is a vitally important consideration not least given the terms on which the JV was approved (i.e. the guarantees given to 3; and the sale of spectrum). The company has, however, confirmed that all four of the companies served by the network (including both 3 and Virgin Mobile) will run on a common infrastructure.

The new company claims a customer base of more than 30 million people – ‘over half of the UK adult population’ (I can’t recall the companies trumpeting this sort of statistic while the regulators were looking at the proposed JV: funny, that!) and its press release helpfully breaks these down into pre-paid and contract mobile customers and Orange’s fixed network (the management of which was outsourced last month to BT) – so would seem to incorporate the potential for some double-counting.

The merged company will have 16,500 employees – 2,500 fewer than they had when the JV was announced seven months ago – and is, according to the same report, seeking savings of some £3.5bn by 2014 in shared infrastructure, technology and in the savings resulting from job cuts.

Not everything, everywhere for everyone, then.

Written by Calvin

12/05/2010 at 11:21 pm

PPF index shows a slight slip

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The Pensions Protection Fund published the PPF7800 Index today for the end of April, showing the state of health of the 7,400 pension schemes under its supervision.

The Index is currently showing a small net deficit, of £2.2bn, reversing March’s small surplus (£0.3bn). Given the growing turmoil in currency markets during April associated with the financial and economic situation in Greece and other small EU countries, something which was only capped this week with the agreement between EU finance ministers, a drop of the Index back into negative territory is not surprising but the small-scale nature of the drop was a surprise, and a particularly welcome one.

Some 69% of schemes were in deficit this month, more or less the same as the 68.5% in March, which seems to support the view that the picture is, essentially, little changed. Evidently, this remains an uncomfortable proportion of schemes in deficit, even if the overall net balance of assets and liabilities lends the view that the average scheme is not all that much in deficit. The total assets of these schemes reached £913bn, a drop of 0.2% over the month and an increase of 18.2% since April 2009; total liabilities stood at £915bn, a small increase on the month but a drop on the £961bn recorded in April 2009.

During April, the value of both assets and liabilities deteriorated, the latter by more than the former (hence the drop of the net figure into negative territory). Over the year as a whole, rising stock markets have added 16.4% to pension scheme assets, while rising bond yields have added only marginally to liabilities.

So, overall the picture continues to be encouraging, although the change in the actuarial assumptions underpinning the calculation of the Index in October last year continues to affect the figures. Caution remains necessary – pension schemes are far from out of the woods just yet.

Written by Calvin

11/05/2010 at 9:09 pm

Monti report proposes more centralised regulation

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In an announcement somewhat overshadowed by EU finance ministers’ agreement on a €500bn package for member states with solvency problems and to provide support to the euro as a currency, as well as in the UK by the will they-won’t they tea dance going on in Whitehall as I write, former European Commissioner Mario Monti has presented a report to current EU President, Jose Manual Barroso, on a new strategy and direction for the EU’s single market.

Monti was commissioned to write the report back in October 2009, and its aim is to motivate a renewed political determination around the concepts of the EU’s single market and to provide a fresh impetus for the principles which underpin it. What seems to be high up in the Commission’s thinking is the need to assess the state of play in the single market in time for the 20th anniversary of its establishment, in 1992, while the context is also clearly rooted in fears for the direction and commercial success of the EU associated with any retreat into economic nationalism arising from national-level responses to the economic and financial crisis. The report will be the basis for a Commission initiative to relaunch the Single Market as a key strategic objective and, following internal discussion, the Commission will emerge with a ‘balanced, broad and fair’ vision of what the single market should look like in the future some time in July.

This is a hugely significant report and the timing of the announcement of the publication could not be worse (though this is unlikely to inhibit a serious discussion in time of the report’s focus). The thrust of the Monti report is that a system of national regulators sees to it that the EU ‘falls short of its commercial promise‘ in the communications and e-commerce areas, and that the response should be for the EU to have stronger powers over national regulators. Some of the conclusions – for example on an EU-wide spectrum licencing regime – look somewhat behind the play given the round of advanced spectrum auctions which have been concluded in the Netherlands and in the Nordic countries, and are currently well underway in Germany. But what looks inescapable is Monti’s views on the need for a revision of regulation in the communications sector so as to create an EU-wide market for electronic and communications and to drive the growth of Europe’s digital economy.

Given the recent conclusion (in 2009) to the last round of revision of telecoms regulation at EU level, the sigh of ‘here we go again’ is equally inescapable. Nevertheless, this is a report that will need serious consideration, both in terms of its political significance as well as in terms of the impact of the measures that it proposes will have on workers in the sector.

Written by Calvin

10/05/2010 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Telecoms regulation

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Barking 51 BNP 0

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Now that‘s what I call a result

Written by Calvin

09/05/2010 at 9:30 am

Posted in Politics

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OK, on with the show

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Though before we do, some interesting reaction to the overnight events picked up via TIGMOO by Anna Rose at Unison Active, as well as by Tom over at labour and capital.

In what is otherwise, given its timing, likely to be one of my more immediately unread posts in the one year (next week!) that this blog has been functioning, I did find this week that there were some interesting things happening in the world of regulatory broadband policy, both in Australia and in Italy, and in the world of net neutrality, in the US, which reflect some aspects of why the blog exists.

In Australia, the centre-left government has published a A$25m (£15m) report commissioned by McKinsey and KPMG that says, essentially, even if Telstra, the former incumbent, doesn’t decide to throw in its lot with the government’s plans for an initially publicly-owned national broadband network company, NBN Co can still go ahead on its own as a viable commercial entity (see here [registration required; limited viewing time] and, when that runs out, here for the basic news story].

Such a conclusion is really no great surprise, and perhaps its most important function is the practical assistance it will provide the government in its continuing negotiations with Telstra on the folding of its assets into NBN Co (although whether that’s a suitable use of public money is a different matter) – both that and the re-starting of structural separation discussions in the Australian parliament, scheduled for next week. The government’s intention to create a ‘Telstra 2′, having not so long ago sold the last one off to a lot of individual (‘mum and dad’) shareholders, with a long-term intent to do the same thing with NBN Co, is the subject of a lively debate, as the comments in The Australian show.

Meanwhile, a proposal for a super-fast broadband network in Italy was made by Vodafone, Wind and Fastweb (the latter two being existing Italian network operators) in Milan today. La Repubblica originally broke the story on Tuesday (you’ll need to speak Italian or else have a good translator – or else, if you’re quick, see either here and/or here for an English language version). The consortium of three want to spend €2.5bn on building a 100Mbps fibre network in Italy over the next five years – but che sorpresa, they want to build it only in the 15 major towns and cities. At the launch, it was also made clear that, over 5-10 years, the network could be extended in an €8.5bn investment to all towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants (representing around half the Italian population). Former incumbent Telecom Italia, which was invited into the project and which has always welcomed the notion of joint partnerships (provided that it keeps its finger on its existing network), has its own €7bn investment plans over three years but deployment so far has been somewhat relaxed.

Cynicism aside, any investment in high-speed broadband is welcome – but it does need to be part of a nationally- planned advance in fibre installation, and one that extends high speed broadband provision on an equitable basis right throughout the country: to rich and to poor; to urban and to rural; to young and to old. Where the market is allowed to dictate investment in nationally-important infrastructure, the end result can only be inequity, exclusion and a widening of the social and digital divides as a result of the inevitable cherry picking that will occur. Leaving the poor old incumbent to pick up the pieces for the rest is hardly reflective of a level playing field, while the concept of social justice – as well as that of evenly-spread economic development – deserves better treatment.

An interesting parallel between Italy and Australia is also that Agcom, the Italian regulator, has been looking at the creation of a separate, new company responsible for the country’s next generation broadband infrastructure.

Finally, in the US the Federal Communications Commission has made progress with its response to last month’s legal ruling against its sanctioning of Comcast for traffic management policies. I blogged about this here. The danger of the ruling was that an inability of the FCC to take action in this way, because broadband internet access is classed under US regulation law not as a telecoms service but as an information service (and thus subject to a different, lighter regulatory regime), left it unable to guarantee net neutrality – i.e. the freedom of internet users not to be subject to the ‘management’ of their surfing by their ISP. This impasse in turn seemed to threaten the FCC’s ambitious National Broadband Plan.

What the FCC has done, according to the BBC – a bit of a lighter read than the FCC’s own statement – is to develop a ‘third way’ (just like 1997 all over again!) which classifies the ‘transmission component’ of broadband access as a telecommunications service while taking a principled non-intervention approach to much of the rest of broadband access. The Chair of the FCC was at pains to point to the ‘narrow and tailored… cautious’ approach, and the need to overcome the difficulties posed to the National Broadband Plan by the legal decision, but even this limited compromise appears to have left the two Republicans on the FCC behind. Here, the Chair’s view is likely to be supported by the two Democrats, indicating it will thus prevail, but ISPs themselves already appear (according to the BBC report) rather unhappy.

These three highly separate, but highly linked, stories highlight the problems of regulating broadband access both in an environment of seeking control of the technology so that it serves the interest of the people, and in free market situations in which competition is supposed to prevail but which doesn’t necessarily always support the interests of the consumer, both taking place in the context of a neo-liberal dominated world view. You might wonder – just as bond markets opening in the middle of election night, as results are starting to come in, and subsequently with its intermittent results, was thought to be newsworthy as part of the BBC’s online internet coverage – just how we’ve got into this mess.

A lack of strategic thinking is one reason – and it’s clear that only strategic thinking can get us out of it.

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