Is UK broadband strategy on the right track?

Problems with the UK's super-fast broadband process could be put right with more joined-up government thinking, says Malcolm Corbett

Recent developments suggest all is far from well with the UK's process of achieving super-fast broadband access. To put it right, government needs to do more joining-up of agendas at the national level while allowing more freedom to innovate locally, says Malcolm Corbett.

While not unexpected, the recent decision by fibre broadband company Geo UK marks a sad day. Geo says it's withdrawing from the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) framework, which is helping to allocate £530m in government funding to upgrade the UK's rural broadband infrastructure. The company won't be taking part in future next-generation broadband access procurements.

Geo's decision is even more significant given Cable & Wireless Worldwide's apparent withdrawal from the Cumbria super-fast broadband procurement process. There is speculation that BDUK's shortlist may be getting shorter by the day.

One big question we should be asking is: are we getting this right?

Government's broadband ambitions

The government's ambition is for Britain to have the best super-fast broadband network in Europe by 2015. Most in the industry strongly support this ambition. But at the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) conference on 9 November delegates were asked if they thought it would actually be achieved. Only one hand went up, and that was the rep from BT. ISPA members are supposed to deliver services over these new networks, so clearly there is a large credibility gap.

At the same time members of Eurim, the Information Society Alliance, have been arguing for a linkage to be made between the broadband and smart-energy agendas. It seems crazy to be investing around £1.5bn to connect smart meters in homes and businesses without linking this plan to the next-generation broadband plan.

As a rep from one of the main industry equipment suppliers said recently, "We're happy to take the money off the government twice, but we can't really see the point."

Government needs to do more joining-up of agendas at the national level while allowing more freedom to innovate locally. Ministers have successfully argued for £530m for broadband and brought in another £150m to support rural mobile coverage. Bringing together the broadband and energy agendas could pay dividends.

Tough challenge for BDUK

BDUK itself has been presented with a tough challenge. The 2015 target is hard to meet if your longer-term objective is to support the development of a competitive market with sustained investment and innovation.

It would be much easier, quicker and cheaper simply to allocate the money to BT. However, if the government wants a competitive landscape, the input problems need fixing and that takes time.

Meanwhile the pressure from MPs and communities wanting better broadband continues. They know money has been...

...allocated and they want results. None of these issues is easy. We need to take a hard look at what the 2015 target means and get the key players round a table to thrash out the issues.

We need to take a hard look at what the 2015 target means and get the key players round a table to thrash out the issues.

With local authorities, a positive step that BDUK could take is to encourage those with the capacity to innovate to develop creative approaches — and then let them get on with it, rather than insisting everyone follows the same model.

The Community Broadband Fund is an opportunity to support innovation, but is woefully small at £18m. Taking a look at what could be achieved by pushing more funding in that direction could really help.

Government needs to move faster on the release of spectrum for wireless services and more pressure needs to be applied to Ofcom to fix the PIA problem so we can ensure a level playing field for all operators. It needs a bit of ministerial table thumping.

Meanwhile the private sector needs to look at models that both encourage more investment and organise demand. This requirement means working top down with capital markets and government, and bottom up with communities, bringing in more patient capital and better matching supply to identified demand.

Opening up new channels for collaboration

There are models available at both ends. It's not rocket science. It just requires more linking between sectors that don't normally talk to each other.

For example, we need to connect those who help villages raise community investment to save their shops and pubs, with those who build broadband networks.

We need City institutions raising capital through the markets to work with companies seeking long-term capital for next generation-broadband projects.

It will work, if we get the fundamentals right.

Malcolm Corbett is chief executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, which represents organisations building and operating independent next-generation broadband networks in the UK.

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