Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Posts Tagged ‘Digital Britain

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

Britain’s Digital Future II

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I’ve now had a chance to listen to The Guardian‘s Tech Weekly podcast I blogged about last week. Unlike some of the comments on the podcast page, which mostly seem to reflect continuing disappointment over the copyright and file sharing aspects of the Digital Economy Act, I thought this was an interesting and reasonably open discussion on the policies of the three main parties towards Digital Britain, underpinned by some thoughtful and articulate comments on the issues and the policies.

The bits on broadband, specifically on how to fund broadband access in rural areas, occur from the 39.17-minute mark and wrap up around 48.50. I learned the following:

– an acknowledgment from Jeremy Hunt, shadow secretary for culture, media and sport, that the market won’t provide for all and that an element of subsidy would be necessary to extend broadband to rural areas. This is not new by itself, but the Tories’ vehicle for this, i.e. using the £200m surplus in the digital switchover portion of the BBC licence fee, was, according to Hunt, supported by the BBC on the grounds that the hungriest consumers of bandwidth were iPlayer users and that the BBC wanted to extend access to iPlayer further. This BBC support for the use in this way of the digital switchover surplus was news to me.

– Stephen Timms, minister for Digital Britain, argued that the switchover money would not be available until 2013 and that doing nothing until then was simply not good enough, while making progress in rural areas demanded investment of £150m per year (i.e. the sums being spoken as being raised by the landline duty). At the same time, conceding the switchover surplus for rural broadband would leave little left for the universal service commitment. Hunt’s reply was that he would rather use the sums which Labour had spoken of to subsidise regional news programmes from ITV for rural broadband instead. So, here we have a Tory spokesman unsympathetic to the notion of the need to subsidise independent sources of regional news – while I also remain unconvinced that the Tories in office would do much towards a universal broadband service at all: having a policy for rural broadband is not the same thing as ensuring that all households in the UK can get access to a minimum broadband service.

– Hunt commented that next generation investment could cost £29bn [apparently, for fibre to the premises solutions right across the UK] and that this was not something that one company [BT] could afford on its own.  He lamented the failure of the Digital Economy Act to do more about encouraging other private sector operators to step forward and said that he wanted ‘Virgin Media to do more; Sky to do more; Carphone Warehouse to use our pilons, telegraph poles, ducts and sewers’ as a way of stimulating a lot more investment in fibre. Of course, there’s nothing to stop any other operator from building out a fibre network and then connecting that with the networks of others to extend coverage. (Except, of course, the need for investment finance and then the obligation to offer that network on a wholesale basis, just like BT has to do. That ‘our’ is an interesting and revealing word, too!)

– Hunt’s reference to Virgin Media having a fibre network which reaches the major towns and cities, and half UK households, whereas BT was the only operator which had the infrastructure to reach rural areas, and that it was ‘madness’ to wait for BT to make that investment as it simply could not afford to do it, seems to me symptomatic of a Tory desire to see BT only as a provider of last resort – that competition will provide in the major areas and that, where it doesn’t, BT will have to provide. So, other operators would be allowed to cherry pick the best areas for their investment, i.e. those which offer the best returns, while leaving to BT alone the prospect of investing in low return areas (and then having to do so on a wholesale basis). I’m extremely unconvinced that this is a sensible, rational approach to getting fibre rolled out across the UK: it leaves far too little in terms of returns for the operator relied upon to undertake the most costly investments (and the only one with sufficient scale to generate the necessary finance). In a situation in which the costs of fibre investment have already been identified as too high for one operator to deal with, it seems completely contrary then to ask that same operator to fund all the unattractive, low return investments. The UK deserves much better joined-up thinking than that.

– ‘Anyone who laid fibre would have an obligation to wholesale the fibre they laid to anyone who wants it’. I’m quoting here because I was quite astounded by what I heard and replayed several times to make sure I got it right. This goes well beyond BT, for which wholesaling obligations as regards fibre investment will inevitably be mandated by Ofcom, while that ‘anyone’ seems on the face of it to encompass, for example, Virgin Media, as well as any other operator which currently does not have SMP (significant market power – only BT and Kingston Communications currently have SMP). On the other hand, it might be argued that there is a strong whiff of ‘in future’ to the quote and, bearing in mind that Virgin Media is expecting to have completed its delivery of superfast broadband right across its network by next year, it may well on this basis be held not to have been caught by the need to respond to such wholesale obligations.

By the way, the programme ended with a comment on the impact on fibre investment of valuation office decisions. This has been well summarised by Computer Weekly and is based on a court case brought by Vtesse, and lost, earlier this year. It had been Tory policy to ‘realign’ business rates charged on fibre networks, although this seemed to lead to a bit of a spat with the Valuation Office Agency and this policy seemed eventually not to make it into the Tories’ Technology Manifesto. Making the cost of fibre essentially cheaper is likely to have some impact on investment decisions since it will increase returns: but, where that investment wouldn’t otherwise be made at all – i.e. in the rural areas – it’s unlikely to have any impact.

[5 May edit: Today’s The Guardian has a summary of all the manifesto commitments to technology, broadband and digital issues.]

Written by Calvin

04/05/2010 at 5:51 pm

Britain’s digital future

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The Guardian‘s Tech Weekly podcast this week focuses on the parties’ views and attitudes towards Britain’s digital future, featuring discussion and comment from the three leading parties’ main representatives (Stephen Timms, Jeremy Hunt and Lord Razzall) on the following issues:

– curbing piracy and file sharing

– intellectual property copyright reforms

– how to fund rural broadband penetration

– dealing with the library of government data.

I haven’t yet listened to this in full but will be doing so with some interest, blogging any issues that arise. In the meantime, you can pick up the podcast, or listen online, here.

Written by Calvin

29/04/2010 at 11:55 am

Don’t worry: we’ve still got the 2 Mbps USC!

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After yesterday’s stripping out from the pre-election legislative timetable of several of the things that the Connect Sector of Prospect has campaigned for as outcomes from the Digital Britain initiative, picking over the guts of what’s left leaves us with little more than the 2 Mbps universal service obligation oops, commitment.

Having read this this morning, I briefly wondered whether even this had survived – although indeed it has; it actually never formed a part of the Digital Economy Bill since no aspect of delivering the commitment needed fresh legislation.

Delivering the commitment to a 2 Mbps service by 2012 reflects the intention that broadband should be delivered on a universal service basis to all those areas in the country which are currently poorly served by broadband – i.e. by ‘no later than’ 2012, all homes in the UK, more or less, should have access to a broadband service of 2 Mbps. Digital Britain reported that currently some 11% of homes (pp. 53-58) – 2.75m in total – are not able to get access at this level of speed. Pursuing this commitment is to be the responsibility of Broadband Delivery UK, a body announced by Stephen Timms in early March and which is to be headed, so Timms announced in Parliament later that day (although it never featured in the BIS press release) by Adrian Kammellard, previously Head of Major Projects at Partnership UK. Broadband Delivery UK remains a somewhat mysterious body; as thinkbroadband comments, it is currently without a web presence – this is as close as I can find – and little information is available about it apart from it being constituted of a body of 12 staff from within BIS.

In the uncertainties of the pre-election period, it would be surprising if Broadband Delivery UK was to have much of a profile: its original workload was yesterday cut in half, although this cut may be restored if the outcome of the general election was to return a Labour government. Nevertheless, the other half – the 2 Mbps commitment – does remain and, given that it has all-party support, the establishment of Broadband Delivery UK prior to the election consequently ought not to interrupt its progress after it, whatever the outcome.

In that context, here’s my ‘Dear Adrian’ letter of the issues that remain to be resolved within the commitment. Some of these are long-term ones, perhaps a little outside of the central remit, but an early recognition that they are ones which need to be addressed would be welcome:

1. 2 Mbps was picked, in the words of the interim Digital Britain report, since it represented what, by 2012, ‘will be in step with standard broadband usage’ (p. 57). This was even then a little unambitious; some 15 months later it looks increasingly outmoded when average speeds are already twice that and when much higher speeds are being rolled out elsewhere. The commitment to a 2 Mbps can’t be changed, at this point, but what is on the tin should be what is in the tin – people benefiting from the USC should get access speeds which are not ‘up to’ but ‘at least’ 2 Mbps. The approach of the US National Broadband Plan, based on actual speed, has a lot to commend in this area.

2. 2 Mbps is a welcome start in terms of ensuring that all broadband coverage is applied on a universal service basis. But it is only a start and, in the grander scheme of things, it isn’t very fast and will, in time, simply provide a very linear demarcation of the digital divide. Some thought therefore needs to be given to how this speed will change over time and, specifically, how it will be uprated: if it is not, people behind it are likely to lose out as speeds are driven faster and faster elsewhere. So, there needs to be a formal review mechanism to ensure continuing relevancy (or perhaps, better said, to guard against increasing anachronism).

3. A 2 Mbps speed refers only to download speeds, not upload ones. In a Web 2.0 world dominated by active sharing, rather than passive receiving, and by cloud computing, upload speeds will adopt increasing importance. Thought therefore needs to be given as to how these can be reflected within the commitment, and also encompassed within the regular reviews of the speeds embraced by it.

So, there remain some things within the current policy programme which can still be pushed, to go on top of the things which need to be reinstated on 7 May. And, above all, Charles de Gaulle was right.

Written by Calvin

08/04/2010 at 4:30 pm

New powers for Ofcom also dropped

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The government is also proposing to drop Clause 1 of the Digital Economy Bill (see also The Guardian). This would have given Ofcom new powers to have ‘particular regard’ in carrying out its statutory duties on behalf of consumers to the need ‘to promote investment in electronic communications networks’. The dead hand of the Tories on the tiller is all too visible here, too.

The Connect Sector had supported this Clause right from the publication of the final report of the Digital Britain initiative since it would have commanded Ofcom to focus in its promotion of the interests of consumers on the need for investment, alongside the existing duty to promote competition. It would have overturned a singular reliance on promoting competition, which had been how both Ofcom and Oftel before it had interpreted the interests of consumers. It is the promotion of competition, to the exclusion of all other concerns, that has allowed us to reach the stage of falling real prices for telecoms services to the point where it is likely to endanger investment. In an intensely competitive situation, falling prices can only inhibit levels of investment since it both undermines and makes more uncertain the rates of return that can be made. When investment is expensive – not least given the need to boost investment in fibre towards fibre to the premises solutions, rather than just fibre to the cabinet – such levels of uncertainty will simply lead to it not being made. And that’s not in the interests of consumers either.

Yet we’re now back in the situation of Ofcom interpreting its regulatory remit on looking at the interests of consumers solely through the telescope of competition. A one-club, narrowly focused and ultimately irrational approach to regulatory policy.

The new duties for Ofcom, by recognising the central role of investment in developing the UK’s communications infrastructure and in insisting that Ofcom supported that in its approach to regulatory decision-making, would have helped to support the case for that investment. Their likely withdrawal – voting on the Digital Economy Bill is tonight – only undermines that case and, in the process, undermines a significant portion of the Digital Britain initiative.

Written by Calvin

07/04/2010 at 3:51 pm

Landline duty dropped

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The BBC is reporting that the proposed landline duty – the 50p/month levy on fixed lines to contribute towards building out high-speed broadband services beyond where the market would deliver – has been dropped.

The dropping of the proposal, on which a BIS consultation closed only last week, is not because the government is suddenly unconvinced of the need for the Next Generation Fund which the duty would have established; it has been dropped since the political controversy over it would potentially have held up the Finance Bill, which has to include the duty since it is a fiscal measure. This is one of a series of three measures – including also the rise in cider duty – which the government has dropped from the Finance Bill so as to ensure that it can complete its passage through Parliament before Parliament is dissolved later this week. Consequently, the landline duty is very much a victim of the election.

Should Labour win the election, it is likely to be re-instated – the government’s policy has not changed – perhaps in a second Finance Bill after the election. However, it is disappointing that the landline duty has been dropped since the policy which lay behind it – that of extending high-speed broadband on a socio-economically equitable basis right across the nations and regions of the UK – was both sound in principle and, actually, far more important than the levy itself. Without the levy, and the Fund, the UK has no practical, resource-based response to the need to spread high-speed broadband equally across the UK other than where the market – i.e. the major network operators – decide where it can be done profitably. That is likely to lead to the over-provision of networks in large urban areas and the under-provision of networks in less populated, more rural areas and, in turn, to a widening of the digital divide. It is also likely to contribute to the further economic overheating of the large urban centres.

For its part, the Tory policy on extending high-speed broadband beyond the market is ill-thought: based as it is on a reliance on the regulated opening up of BT’s ducts – a policy with which BT is happy to comply but which, as Ofcom has previously pointed out, is likely only ever to be a partial solution – backed by some money from the BBC licence fee otherwise earmarked for the digital switchover. The digital switchover is due to be complete by 2012 and the underspend in this budget is £200m, which Digital Britain had intended to use to meet its universal broadband service commitment by 2012. Any continuation of this budget beyond 2012 essentially takes money away from BBC programming – thus, for the Tories, killing two birds with one stone but which is likely to mean further cuts in the production of quality media content.

The landline duty was fair in the context in which it was originally put by Digital Britain – that households had received a benefit from falling telecoms prices in recent years and that it was thus reasonable to ask them to share some of that benefit. The Connect Sector of Prospect had always argued that it was a moderate, affordable and specific contribution from consumers towards the cost of roll-out of NGA infrastructure beyond the market, and we also supported it as a welcome sign of the government’s commitment to a policy of ‘industrial activism’.

The decline in consumer telephony bills has been well documented by Ofcom:

Source: Figure 4.55, Ofcom Communications Market Report 2009

The chart shows clearly the falling nature of household telecoms bills, which declined from 3.4% of monthly expenditure in 2005 to 3.2% in 2008 – the same proportion as in 2003. If we focus on the decline in the amount of expenditure on fixed voice and on internet and broadband – i.e. the sums going to the operators charged with responsibility for rolling out high-speed broadband services – we can see that these have fallen by £5.68 per month – at standard prices – since 2003 (a drop of 14.7%). In this context, a 50p/month levy was, and remains, fair.

This decline in return is not a rational basis on which to found an expectation that operators will roll out costly investment in fibre networks in areas where it is even partly speculative. They will, instead, concentrate only on the clearly most profitable areas. That will inhibit the roll out of fibre networks, putting the extension of fibre roll-out some twenty points lower than it otherwise would have been by 2017, and it will exacerbate the divides within the UK.

That would be a disaster for the UK both socially and economically.

Written by Calvin

07/04/2010 at 12:16 pm

FCC loses traffic management case

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The US Federal Communications Commission yesterday lost its ‘open internet’ court case against Comcast, the US cable service provider. The case stemmed from action taken by the FCC when it established that Comcast had been throttling traffic from high-bandwidth file sharing services. The court ruled that the FCC had failed to tie its actions to ‘any statutorily mandated responsibility’ – i.e. that it had no powers to intervene in ISPs’ network management policies and practices in the way that it did – and thus in favour of Comcast’s own arguments.

The case had become something of a cause célèbre for ‘net neutrality’ in the US – the notion that internet traffic should not be restricted in any way by those delivering an internet service – and the FCC was putting a brave face on the decision (statements here), re-stating its ‘firm commitment’ to an open internet and noting that, while the decision had invalidated the FCC’s prior policy approach,

The Court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet; nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end.

For its part, Comcast re-iterated its commitment to the FCC’s existing principles of an open internet, saying that its only purpose in taking the case had been to clear its name and reputation.

Some of the reporting focuses on the threat to the FCC’s ability to enforce its National Broadband Plan arising from the ruling, which the FCC may seek to deal with by seeking to have the principle of net neutrality enshrined in law, thus giving it the power to compel ISPs not to throttle traffic. The Commission has acknowledged that some of the recommendations in the Plan may be under threat as a result of the ruling and that it is examining each one to ensure that it has adequate authority. In the meantime, some mature reflection on the implications of the decision and the likelihood of change in a political context can be found here [registration required; limited viewing time]

In the UK, the Digital Economy Bill does contain such a power authorising Ofcom, under direction from the Secretary of State, to assess whether ‘technical measures’, including line speed throttling amongst others, should be imposed on ISPs for the purpose of preventing the use of the internet for copyright infringements, and giving the power to the Secretary of State to act on Ofcom’s assessments (clauses 10 and 11). Much of the attention has been given to clauses 17 (and now 18) of the Bill concerning the issue of what to do over copyright infringement, but it should be noted that this is very much the end of the line and that other measures are envisaged before such a stage is reached.

The DEB thus moves the discussion in this country on net neutrality substantially away from an open internet. However, it does so only in the context of copyright infringements – ISPs will not be able to use the law to prioritise traffic to their own content providers or to slow the connections of traffic headed to alternative providers, which was one of the reasons behind the FCC’s intervention with Comcast in the US. Coincidentally, the sites whose traffic was being throttled by Comcast were peer-to-peer BitTorrent sites.

Policies on an open internet, or on net neutrality, are fine in principle but are always likely to fall behind when the net is used for illegal activity, however much in need of reform and updating the law making that activity illegal apparently is.

Written by Calvin

07/04/2010 at 10:49 am