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Broadband Breakfast in Westminster PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Sunday, 10 February 2013 11:59

Parliamentary Broadband Breakfast Discussion 5th February, Portcullis House, Westminster

The PICTFOR – NG Events Ltd - Next Generation event on 5th February was our first joint event. The intent was to inject some fresh thinking into debates around broadband policy.

With this purpose in mind we selected three themes and allocated each to two speakers who were asked to speak for 3 minutes as an introduction to open discussion.

Attending the discussions were Parliamentarians and a widely drawn representation from the broadband industry and those concerned with economic and societal policy development within our increasingly digitalised economy.

The event was chaired by Chi Onwurah MP.  The structure of brief introductory remarks and ample discussion time allowed speakers to be provocative and their topics to be explored in depth.

Theme 1: Broadband Policy Targets

Malcolm Taylor, a seasoned regulatory and policy commentator, spoke from the perspective of a brand new and very independent think tank – the Foundation for Information Society Policy.  His intent was to inject some fresh thinking into the notion of broadband policy targets. The open-ended nature of technology routinely consigns unambitious targets to the waste bins of history and aspirations such as ‘to be best’ are considered by many in the industry to be relatively meaningless.

Malcolm’s suggestion for more a useful policy direction involved regularly revised longer-term ambitions for improvements (possibly locally determined) beyond a general ‘service floor’ that could capture several aspects of connectivity performance.  In the context of ever-greater local governance we should, he said, be considering penalties for providers who fail to live up to the service expectations.

Karin Ahl, President of FTTH Council Europe, pointed out the need for stronger political leadership and the inevitable demand for higher capacity and service flexibilities that could only be satisfied by fibre.  

Quoting New Zealand and France as policy indicators, Karin suggested that legislators should realistically plan for the growth of the digital economy and positively incentivise the demise of last generation technologies. Karin also queried the dilution of terminology with copper-based broadband services referenced as ‘fibre broadband’ by UK incumbents.

The ensuring discussion ranged from questioning the motivations behind the FTTH Council’s position and strong support for the FISP position on rethinking targets.  Participants also called for better monitoring of what service levels are actually delivered and used – the outputs rather than the inputs – and this in many ways reflected concerns with other common provider claims such as ‘up to’ speeds and ‘homes passed’.  The forthcoming FTTH Council

Europe summit later in February will provide further opportunities for debate.

Theme 2: Local Communities and Policy Integration

The complex challenges of managing a city with a fast-growing population and a fast-shrinking budget were brought to life by Raj Mack of Birmingham City Council.

Building on the theme that investing in the digital infrastructure is not in itself sufficient – it is in the application of the infrastructure that efficiency and innovation would be found - Raj ventured that public sector services are a major driver of the growth of the digital economy and should usefully inform the design parameters of infrastructure investment.

With ‘digital by default’ as a trend within both the public and private sectors, the growth of the Internet of Things and new tools for mapping/interpreting Open Data, the scope for joined up public sector services was huge – and should not be constrained by outmoded forms of connectivity provisioning.

Raj had made only brief mention of digital inclusion issues but the next speaker, Helen Milner of the UK Online Centres Foundation, more than made up for coverage of the scale of the digital divide.

Helen’s analysis of the needs of the 15-20 million people who were not participating in the digital economy showed that access and connectivity is a far smaller concern than the underlying motivational issues – and, at a cost of £30/head, the work yields huge value to business and the state.  It is, inevitably, a journey where confidence and skill levels of all citizens need to grow as the digital economy develops.

Discussion showed both understanding of the complexity facing cities and communities and the criticality of the digital inclusion effort.  Whether the outcomes of inclusion programmes properly reflected the influence of smart-phones and the widespread uptake of mobile applications was left as an open question.  Helen’s infographic can be found at her blog.

Theme 3: urban and rural priorities

The final discussion topic centered around the challenges of rural broadband deployments - the relative broadband poverty of those living and working in hard-to-reach areas – and the need for economic rebalancing.

Graham Bolton of Cambium gave us a view of the scope for fixed wireless solutions and a faster return on any public investment compared with infrastructure support for urban areas.

Barry Forde, the final speaker, outlined the rural fibre schemes of B4RN – Broadband for the Rural North. The solution for achieving what conventionally seems impossible – viability for FTTH deployment in thinly populated remote areas without state subsidy – requires an entirely fresh approach to cost reduction and demand certainty.  This twin track approach is served partly by voluntary effort – particularly in the installation of ducts – and in the financial structure of the scheme that encourages participation.

In discussion it became clear that whilst public sector funding could now be used to support fixed wireless schemes, projects such as B4RN were still entirely dependent on private sector resourcing. Questions directed to Barry teased out issues related to wayleaves, the practical operational advantages of using private land and the failure of the Passive Infrastructure Access provisions to deliver any tangible benefits for local community networks.

Summary

Drawing all three themes together, Brian Condon (CBN) observed that investing in the digital infrastructure is a prerequisite for progress across all sectors of the economy, efficiencies and quality improvements in public sector services and for the personal growth of individuals and their contributions to society.

Drawing the discussion to a close, Chi Onwurah MP thanked all participants for a good natured and timely debate that had reached far deeper into the issues of broadband policy than previous events and parliamentarians expressed their thanks for the opportunity to hear views from beyond the conventional lobbying of incumbent interests.

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This event was jointly organised by PICTFOR and NG Events Ltd and signalled the start of the 2013 programme.  Further announcements will be made concerning the Next Generation Digital Challenge awards and Study Tours to the USA and Sweden.

 

 

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