Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Posts Tagged ‘Regulation

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

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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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

Orange refused Swiss merger

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Swiss competition regulators have refused permission for Orange, the smallest of three operators in Switzerland, to merge with Sunrise, the Danish-owned second largest operator, on the grounds that the proposal would undermine market dynamics and damage consumer interests.

The merged entity, for which proposals had been developed last November, would have had a market share of 38%, compared to the 62% held by Swisscom, the former monopoly operator. However, the view of the Swiss authorities was that the merged operator: ‘would have been in a collective dominant position which risked eliminating effective competition.’ Uppermost in the authorities’ mind was that it would be more advantageous in a two-company market for both to collude over pricing levels.

An appeal, which must be lodged within 30 days, is thought likely [registration required; limited viewing time]. In the meantime, a knock-on effect of the decision has been to delay a planned flotation of TDC [registration required; limited viewing time], the Danish parent of Sunrise, which is currently owned by a consortium of five well-known private equity groups (Blackstone Group; Permira; Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co; Providence; and Apax Partners). Part of the Swiss merger would have meant France Telecom, Orange’s parent, handing over €1.5bn in cash to TDC in return for a 75% share in the merged operation – without which, on the face of it, the private equity groups concerned have been unable to realise sufficient gains prior to their exit from the Danish market.

Clearly, the Swiss mobile communications market is different to the UK one and Switzerland is outside the EU, so it’s not particularly interesting to examine the reasons for the approval of a merger in one market compared to a decision to reject a merger creating a still-small entity in another. At the same time, however, and taking these two recent situations together, it is interesting that the rationale for merger approval or rejection in neo-liberal societies seems, on the face of it, not to be so much the desire to create, or achieve, conditions of high competition but to minimise the point at which there is a potential for pricing collusion.

It’s also an interesting reflection on the role of private equity groups, and their ability to extract high rewards from relatively quiet situations (the Swiss mobile market is 9m consumers) – as well as a comment on  the involvement of private equity groups in telecoms companies. If the €1.5bn was as crucial as that to their exit from the Danish market, and sufficient to postpone it when its arrival has been blocked, then it is likely that the efficiency gains sparking their involvement in TDC have not been sufficient to make their involvement in Denmark worthwhile. At least – not yet; which may in turn spark a note of further warning to Danish trade union colleagues.

It would have been even more interesting had Deutsche Telekom, in which Blackstone has a stake, had been involved in the Swiss market.

Written by Calvin

26/04/2010 at 6:07 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