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Getting to the heart of the matter PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Monday, 10 January 2011 08:31

Head of CommunicationsHelping to draft a CMA response to the Public Administration Select Committee’s call for input to an enquiry into UK government IT strategy has made me question why policy developers still seem to have a blind spot regarding infrastructure for digital Access Networks.

No one would hesitate to link the adequacy of road or rail networks with economic growth.

Nobody would question whether energy networks or water supply were essential parts of the infrastructure and deeply embedded in our economic fabric.

No one, surely, would dispute the value of ‘knowledge sharing’ in accelerating enterprise development and innovation.

Hardly anyone, these days, can envisage an information technology policy without considering the digital networks that link systems with citizens. Even the august British Computer Society prefers the term ‘ICT’ to pay respect to the embedded communications component.

And there’s no shortage of evidence that economic growth and innovation, particularly in less-favoured areas, is vitally linked to the quality of the digital access infrastructure.

So, after umpteen reports, endless soul-searching, delayed actions and dispiriting evidence of global realities but breathless declarations of the UK’s world-leading aspirations, why is digital network investment (particularly investment in local Access Networks) not overtly embedded in the government’s quest for growth?

Five of No. 10’s latest urgings on growth initiatives assume that we live in a digitally mediated world – and they even have a 6th last-generation initiative for the minority who don’t. But, sadly, these policy developers seem also to assume that what most of us have is already ‘fit for purpose’.

Seasoned economic experts at HM Treasury, BIS, CLG and Ofcom have yet, it seems, to understand that the gaps between the UK’s economic infrastructure and those of some continental neighbours is widening in exponential proportion to years of under-investment in high-quality, well-managed and locally-adapted digital Access Networks.

It’s important to note that the scale of the Access Network quality gap is not to be measured simply in headline download speeds – although it’s telling that a leading supplier in Sweden is about to withdraw its old 100Mb/s consumer gateway product in favour of a new design that allows for 1Gb/s capacity for every home, office or, indeed, bus shelter.

But, I repeat, this network quality issue is not about download broadband bragging rights. The real indicators of fitness for purpose are found in less high-profile technical and functional features but most vitally in the relationships between local communities and the management of their local utility Access Networks and the extent to which universal access to “real” broadband has been achieved.

Fibre Access Networks can, as most would assume, be explained as an incremental upgrade to last-generation copper networks. This is a grave error but a common ignorance that is mightily convenient for established industry stakeholders. It is an assumption they have been very keen to defend for fear of letting in new market entrants with radical plans.

The undeniable reality, however, is that new FTTx technology, when deployed with imagination and customer convenience in mind, provides a joyous opportunity to break with the past and start over with an entirely fresh approach. That innovative stance does not fit well with last-generation policy or the reactive regulation that has evolved around it. It is an approach that many continental communities (urban and rural) have welcomed with open arms (and cheque books) much to the consternation of old copper-encumbered incumbents.

Innovation is a marvelous thing and, when deployed well, is by nature deeply upsetting for those whose old ways cannot be preserved. So the policy determinants specified by communities, citizens and enterprises, would be far-better modeled on the functional delights found in places where the last decade of fibre deployment in local networks has been seen as akin to gaining economic freedoms – in much the same way that the Victorian railway ventures came to be seen as a societal and economic blessing in the teeth of entrenched opposition from those who had a stake in other forms of transport

There is no great need to labour the technical importance of upload speeds, latency, packet loss, backhaul management systems, Layer 3 access and Virtual Private Network capacities - these are all highly significant but easily managed by professional network designers. The real essence of the new model is a utility network infrastructure that is managed entirely separately from the multitude of services that it can be used for. The wholesale fees charged to Service Providers for use of this local Access Network can effectively mean that a fibre connection to any single end-point can be sold many times over.

That single link can handle with ease multiple concurrent services from multiple concurrent suppliers. The fibre link to your house or business has such great capacity that there is no need for multiple competing connections. What greater incentive could there be for local network managers to encourage Services innovation, a flowering of competition and more traffic flowing across the network?

And managing this this state of ‘openness’ invokes an extraordinary ease (a click on a menu) with which customers can switch Service Suppliers without any of the hassles of transference of line ‘ownership’, migration codes, billing complexities, and the sharp marketing practices that have accompanied last-generation copper ‘unbundling’ – for on these utility networks nothing is ever bundled with the connection. Customers may choose to buy a package of Services but experience elsewhere shows that many prefer to mix & match to suit their specific household or business needs..

But there is more – the extra-ordinary ease (and marginal cost) of introducing local community services provided by self-help community interest groups and local enterprises – everything from local baby-sitting to security services and tools that are far more localized than the bland national or global approximations to what people really need. These local services for local people – the TV channel for kids Saturday football – become easily viable when the network is managed by local operators for local people.

It helps, of course, (being free of worries about past investment in last-generation copper cables) if all public sector offices and buildings make use of the network from inception – not breaking their old Service deals but simply insisting that the Services arrive via the new fibre. The market power of these public bodies is hugely significant

And it helps if the community is so enthusiastic about the change that they vote with a preparedness to invest time and energy into making it happen – some farmers can easily bury their own fibre cables and not wait around for the Telco’s economists or their regulatory friends or city analysts to deem it worthwhile.

And it helps if citizens and enterprises see though and resist the FUD put about by the so-called experts that serves to preserve monopoly control – and to rise above the predatory planning tactics crafted to zap real innovation.

The innovation that can be released by rethinking the way we do this 21st century stuff is at the heart of economic resurgence and societal development. But reading our coalition government pronouncements you’d be hard put to spot any overt acknowledgement of the massive power of the greatest utility transformation since the switch from DC to AC electricity.

And the amazing thing is that at £10bn nationwide (yes, cheaper by far than the experts would have us all believe) this big change, even in these straitened times, can be managed in the small change – not, of course, that it needs central tax coffers to be opened when the banking and financial services industry is, surely, so very keen to prove their sense of national economic responsibility …… hmm?

So where in the UK do we find deals on offer from mortgage providers to term-extend, for say 3 months, to release the funding for citizens’ stakes in the local infrastructure?

And where, in all the moves to control public sector expenditure, do we spot recognition of the trans-sector (cross-departmental) benefits of superfit-fibre?

If we took UN advice for developing economies it would be writ large in the UK government’s ICT policy but, reading the call from the Public Administration Select Committee, it seems that Access Network utility infrastructure is unlikely to get air time over the no doubt important and hard-fought debates about contracts, G-clouds and complexity issues that last generation IT experts seem to enjoy.

The transformation to FTTx is not an upgrade – it is an upheaval – and, like many of the desperate measures needed in these desperate times, long overdue.



This editorial was written for the UK's Communications Management Association whose members spend, in aggregate, over £13bn per annum on networked products and services.

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Last Updated on Monday, 10 January 2011 17:30

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