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Beyond Pipe Dreams? (June 2008) PDF Print E-mail
Written by david brunnen   
Wednesday, 11 June 2008 08:58

(David Brunnen reports from the UK's Broadband Stakeholders Group conference, London, 9 June 2008)

ImageThe loudest applause during this day of deliberation over what to do about the UK’s lack of high-speed broadband was awarded not to any of the speakers but to the closing comments of a UK broadband user shown on a video made by Ofcom’s Consumer Panel.

“it’s absolutely pants – but there’s nothing I can do about it”

 

In that one simple truth-recognising moment of communications clarity Ofcom’s previously dire position on fibre has not just been rescued from the regulatory ashes but has set a new record for gymnastic somersaults with back flip and double twist.

 

Let’s play that again.

 

The heavy BSG reports, the undeniably solid work of months of economic and technological research, and careful deliberations about models and frameworks and narrow-minded scepticism about public intervention, and, moreover,  the agonising efforts of trying to keep open doors that are determined to close before established interests are ready to understand that there’s a totally different market in the next room – all that reduced to something even the most disciplined of ideological nay-sayers could understand.

 

“it’s absolutely pants – but there’s nothing I can do about it”

 

Students of transforming moments will also have noted several other straws in the winds that blew around this overheated conference centre in London.

 

From Benoit Felten of Yankee Group (and editor of fiberevolution.com) we heard of the competition-inducing value of ‘Open Access’ networks – designs that are filling a space several million miles away from the G-PON approach of incumbent Telcos.

 

We learned how take-up on fibre networks is higher when the local network utility is not owned by the old telcos and not vertically integrated with their services.  We learned how the demand from rural areas can turn the old notion of city-centre cherry picking and the creation of even deeper digital divisions completely on its unimaginative head. 

 

We heard again that latency and packet loss and symmetry – those attributes of well-designed FTTH networks that are lost in the signal noise of go-faster shouting – are what really make a difference to ordinary lives and real businesses in that market that is trying to survive and prosper outside of, and often despite of, the established go-slower telecommunications industry. 

 

And we heard yet again, though yet again it seemed to fall upon deeply deaf BERR ears, of how these networks can be used to enable (‘leverage’) wider economic and societal transformation.

 

For those who were listening, the day was littered with references to entirely different approaches to investment in local fibre networks.  I lost count of how many speakers mused upon the thought that in five years time they might look back and wonder why they had spent so much time (and money) debating the hind-sighted blindingly obvious. 

 

Anthony Walker of the BSG was, as ever, a calm voice of reason.  He reviewed the latest BSG report that reinforced the notion that fibre was not just about speed but also about those other attributes that umpteen observers have repeatedly highlighted as ‘fit for purpose’ imperatives and sadly lacking in over-stretched copper networks.  As anyone who has ever read stories to children will know, repetition is far more important than an original plot. 

 

Much fun could be had in the matter of cost estimates.   The notion of a single ubiquitous plan for fibre across the UK has long been debunked by the inevitability of ‘Islands of Fibre’, but that doesn’t stop folks from playing the numbers game.

 

To understand how different UK-wide estimates can arise you need first to consider that it will certainly seem vastly more expensive if you really don’t want to do it – or leastways not yet or perhaps not until someone else takes all the risk.

 

The experience of those braver or imaginative (or just more grown-up) souls in other countries like Sweden is that the more you do it the less it costs – and the more you do it the more you learn from doing it, which may explain why Sweden has such a proliferation of specialist ISPs who are thriving in what is a relatively small market.

 

Even more fun could be had listening to the speaker from Openreach protesting that he should not be introduced as BT Openreach lest we might presume some unwarranted lack of independence – or that maybe BT did not fully (going forward) understand the difference between a utility access infrastructure and the services that run across it.   Protesting too much ?  Good name that – Openreach.

  

You could also marvel at the debate about how one might define market failure.  Very clever minds have agonised over notions of when the already evident ‘market failure’ could be formally declared in order to justify the remedial public intervention needed to address areas of severe digital deprivation that are obviously perfectly predictable.

 

To what extent should we induce failure to make us feel OK about trying to mend it?  Has no-one in this industry or government heard of preventative medicine or are we all in awe of high-flown notions of narrowly measured ‘efficient and timely investment’?  Whatever happened to will-power?  How many times must we hear how brilliantly the UK managed to introduce last generation broadband before we are convinced that every other country got it so horribly, so inefficiently, wrong?   At least we no longer hear claims that there was no public intervention last time around. 

 

And the holding message from the management ? 

 

The best they could suggest, whilst trying to hold together factions and realities that are falling apart, was a direct crib from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Don’t Panic’.

 

The pennies are beginning to drop.  The positions of all sorts of players are starting to shift.  The world awaits with bated breath the BERR review being led by Francesco Caio on secondment from the City.   No need, chaps, to heed the call from the founder of OnsNet in The Netherlands and take community action.   No doubt a UK solution will be found and the civil servants at BERR will eventually convince themselves that it owes nothing to continental experience or very sensible regulatory pressure from Brussels. 

“it’s absolutely pants – but there’s nothing I can do about it”

 _________________________

The BSG reports can be downloaded from www.broadbanduk.org

See also:

'Islands of Fibre: the oh-yes-we-can spots'

and 'Digital Diversity'

For a complete list of CMA editorials please see the Features section of this website

Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 August 2008 06:22
 

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