Last Thursday I attended the Government’s Industry Day where they laid out their key policy framework and work programme for broadband and the internet. If you hung around just long enough to hear Jeremy Hunt, Ed Vaizey and Caroline Spelman speak, and with only one ear on what was being said while you rushed to submit your copy you might be forgiven for thinking this was another platform where the new government blames the old for a delay in delivering on a promise – BUT you’d be VERY wrong.
Before the election two phrases kept cropping up – “We’re in this together” and “Big Society”. For me, Thursday’s event was possibly the first time I’d seen a concrete example of what that meant in real terms. What was announced wasn’t a policy which handed large sums of money to a semi-state organisation to proscribe how better broadband would be delivered from on high. Instead we heard from Ministers explaining what their role was in defining and delivering the future, what we could reasonably expect from central Government, and what needed to come from others.
We heard how the Government will remove barriers to investment and create the structures necessary to support local communities in defining their own broadband futures, and how industry would be encouraged to support that process, enabling a smart division of skills that could solve all but the most intractable of broadband problems.
And we heard from a Minister with a vision of 50 Mbps symmetrical services reaching most people by the end of this parliament delivered by the combined efforts of Government, industry and communities. I suspect that sent a few shivers through Whitehall but knowing the people involved I’m sure they are universally excited by the challenge.
Starting immediately is a month long consultation seeking paper solutions to three paper broadband problems. These will be used to shape the Government’s support programmes, ensuring both commercial and community organisations receive the right kind of support in the right manner. At the same time, the English regions and the devolved assemblies are each being asked to construct a long-list of areas they want to benefit from next generation broadband. From this, Broadband Delivery UK (BD-UK) will announce the location of three real market testing projects in September and begin a tendering process to find the right mix of commercial and community players to make them a reality. From these projects they aim to learn about the impact of state aid, forms of broadband registration and demand stimulation, and infrastructure sharing open access models.
While this is going on, BD-UK will be negotiating with the EU towards a national state aid agreement which for the first time since dial-up modems were in short trousers will provide clear guidance to local authorities on what they can and can’t do. State Aid legislation has been a bigger block to UK investment in broadband than almost any other, with state sponsored projects crippled by fear of challenge or paralysed by years of rulings before they can begin work. The first roadblock gone – and with it gone, a new process will be in place to unlock the public networks which already reach many of our most remote communities.
Secondly work will push ahead on infrastructure sharing including the opening up of BT’s ducts as well as other assets like the sewers and culverts. This is a knotty problem and not a panacea but an important element in making the UK an easier place to invest in. Second roadblock going.
With all this work hopefully complete – the lessons from the market testing projects learnt, infrastructure hopefully opened up, and state aid put to bed – the Government will announce the main programme of work next year to support local delivery of super-fast broadband, supported by what they termed “mid-level aggregation” to make it easier for the service providers to link to homes and businesses. This time next year we will be well prepared for the main challenge ahead.
|Did I hear all the answers on Thursday?||No|
|Does that worry me?||Quite the opposite – I’m relieved!|
|Am I excited?||Absolutely!|
For the first time in a long while, ambition is back on the agenda. Whether we actually achieve at least 50Mbps symmetrically to every corner of the UK doesn’t matter nearly so much as the way it will change the shape and aspirations of an industry, and the people and businesses that it serves. The journey matters as much as the arriving, and we are on our way.