Or why this isn’t an IT project.

Last year, when Jeremy Hunt announced the BDUK competitions, I commented at the time that it felt like ambition was back on the agenda.

A year on, localism is really beginning to play out – or perhaps more accurately, a developing understanding of what it might mean is beginning to grow  as local authorities construct their broadband strategies. This process has created a space for communities, the public sector and the telecoms industry to have a dialogue.

As with any organic and new process, progress is far from uniform – in some places communities are developing a stronger voice; in other the local authority is taking a stronger lead; and some parts of the industry have been more receptive than others. In some areas progress has been rapid, and in others painfully slow.

If there is a criticism of the new localism agenda, it is this.

Local authorities have spent more than a decade increasingly micro-managed. There has been little reason to consider risks in their corporate strategy as they were largely told by central government how and what to prioritise. There has been little reason to open a dialogue with local communities because there was little scope to adapt to their needs.

Localism has put this process sharply in reverse – local authorities now need to consider their appetite for risk and to match it with their communities ambitions and needs – yet these skills no longer come easily to many councils. This isn’t a criticism of councillors or council officials – its simply a reality.

In fact, to their credit, many councils have risen to the challenge – at times it may be faltering but nevertheless localism is happening and I suspect it feels rather liberating.

But in some areas it has proved harder – the tools with which to form a dialogue with communities have been harder to muster, and the risk associated with taking risks has been too difficult to contemplate.

A common theme among these areas is that they typically draft in the IT department to lead their bid, assuming that developing a broadband strategy is a technology process which can be developed from the centre and in isolation using their specialists. Its not!

  • Broadband plans are about the local economy and competitiveness,
  • Broadband plans are about how local services are delivered,
  • Broadband plans are about people and businesses.

Local authorities who hand their broadband strategy over to their IT department will ultimately be as disappointed as if they had handed teaching or social work over to them.

IT is an enabler that helps to solve real world issues; broadband is just a tool they might use that cuts across every possible policy area. The strategic basis of a broadband plan must be in the hands of people who deal with those real world issues.

Look to Ed Vaizey. Ed is a multi-faceted person but he’s not a technologist, he doesn’t surround himself with geeks, and yet he fully understands the impact a good broadband strategy will have on the creative industries and media, rural areas and the wider economy.

Rory Stewart has seen the benefits of localism and the impact broadband could have on his rural constituency without resulting to a discussion on bits, bytes and symmetry.

The certain disappointment of not following their lead may be hard, expensive and slow to rectify as well.

If neighbouring areas solve this problem better then rate-paying businesses will begin to migrate, making the rural areas a place to retire to rather than grow a business.

If businesses migrate, younger people will migrate to find the work.

And an area with relatively poor infrastructure means even elderly people will slowly migrate as the services which would keep them in touch with their families and allow them to stay in their homes longer won’t be there.

The risk associated with avoiding risks is much higher than developing a measured appetite that allows local ambitions to be met.

Being ambitious for your locality is the less risky path to tread.

  1. Chris Conder says:

    The trouble is that the suits have moved into the councils (eg BT is now a strategic partner with Lancashire with 60 %control) and they are influencing decisions. This means that instead of innovation our councillors are falling for the hype of an obsolete incumbent trying to captialise on the last vestiges of profit from their old phone network. Thus instead of investing in furtureproof solutions they are patching up the old copper with cabinets and BET. It will all be do do again in another few years.
    At least a few mps are starting to understand, but its the councils who need physics lessons and then they won’t fall for all this spin. Poor cornwall and ireland are already lost to the copper cabal.

    • adrian says:

      Finding answers to everyone’s broadband needs is going to need “suits” as much as everyone else – what matters is how the different stakeholders come together and the quality of their dialogue. Where its been cut short or never been allowed to grow, then poor solutions will fill the void. There is a network builder out there for every situation and they are willing to deliver what’s asked of them if it makes sense – BUT if there is no strategy in place, no vision and no ambition then the only solution anyone can deliver is the cheapest thing that’s already on the shelves.

      It only takes one of the three key stakeholders to pull up short for this to happen – a local authority that thinks its a risk-free IT solution, a community that makes demands but won’t be part of the solution, or a network operator that religiously sticks to old business models. You give one example but I can think of examples of all three (and I’m sure you can too).

      • Chris Conder says:

        We are a community who have a solution. But they won’t even listen. I bet there are many solutions out there as you say, but they will never see the light of day. chris

  2. Paul nash says:

    Too many people are too interested in playing with the train set! This blog piece is absolutely right outcomes for the economy, empowerment for the community and transformation of services is where we should be focussing. Look at the 18 requirements for a BDUK bid, does the word technology appear anywhere? If it comes to criticising the lack of investment in UK infrastructure then I’m there with the rest of them – it’s a national disgrace *but* if you’re looking to invest in something for the next generation the look around and see how high your ambition can reach not how you want to get there.

    • adrian says:

      Thank you for the comment. What you say chimes with the contrasts in some of the European fibre projects where some projects have very high take-up while other rather low. The key difference almost universally is the message and the engagement:
      – if what’s being sold is bandwidth then only the early adopters will be bothered (initially probably only 10-20%)
      – if on offer are services that make a difference to people’s lives then most people will be bothered (more like 40-60% take-up)
      – if the process allowed people to say what it was that mattered to them and that shaped the services then everyone will be bothered (examples with over 80% exist)

      Getting this right solves digital exclusion for whatever reason – geographical or social.

      I’ve recently done some work with Brian Condon around this and have presented it a couple of times to audiences – I must get around to writing it up and posting it here.

      • Chris Conder says:

        That is why the whole thrust of BDUK should be going into the final 10%, the hardest to reach areas, the ones with none or very little internet access at the moment. That way you get all the benefits and great take up. Offer people something a ‘bit faster’ than what they already have and you are wasting public money. Offer them BET, a bonded copper excuse for a connection and you are wasting public money. This should all be a no brainer of an exercise. It just proves to me that the whole BDUK thing is just to provide jobs for the boys and keep the communities focussing on getting funding instead of jfdi and getting on with building networks themselves.


      • adrian says:

        Its a very mixed picture – the point of the blog – where some are realising its hard and doing a good job of partnering all the right people while some are still thinking its just a matter of handing it over to a friendly network operator and hoping for the best.

        What I would say is that BDUK’s insistence that the local broadband plans are county-wide, including the easy places, means that the cherry picking should stop. If a market town gets a quick make-over then the villages around it becomes even harder and the sparse rural areas impossible. Chipping away at the problem or just focussing on a bit of it will ultimately mean more public funds, worse value for public funds, and worse outcomes. The goal, as you say, has to mean that whatever the answer is, the last 10% absolutely must be included properly (not a sticking plaster) and its a whole lot harder if you try without working very closely with the community.

  3. Somerset says:

    Chris continually drones on about patching up old victorian copper, what matters is the service provided and there is little mention of what is needed. Clearly installation costs for FTTC are lower than FTTP and will give enough bandwidth for many users.

    Home working and telemedicine get mentioned, but what bandwidth do they need? 1000’s homework with ADSL.

    Fibre or wireless is clearly the solution to give access to the rest of the country, presumably many places are scattered on the periphery of exchange areas.

    Is the problem with community solutions that they are incomplete, relying on enough people to help, and don’t show the long term support?

    • adrian says:

      I think we need to put this in context. If you live in a city, then copper is likely to last for some years to come as VDSL technology ekes every last ounce out of the existing infrastructure. But if you live in a rural area, copper increasingly doesn’t solve your problem. Apart from anything else, you need a cabinet from which to fibre. If I lived where Chris lives and my focus was on fixing my own problem, I’d probably think a focus on copper-based solution was pretty rotten too.

      In the coming decade, I think we’ll see copper remain dominant in the more urban areas, and fibre begin to dominate in rural areas – then moving beyond that we’ll start to see copper ebb from the cities as well. With that in mind, any areas that think FttC is a near universal solution are fooling themselves very badly and denying the complex reality of the landscape. While at a local level one solution will become an obvious candidate, anyone who thinks any one solution will dominate at a regional level – fibre, copper or wireless – hasn’t got their head around how hard this transition is going to be.

      For an area like Wray, where Chris lives, the solution is pretty obvious but her county council will need to have a much more nuanced and varied framework if they hope to find solutions for the whole county – as does any county council.

  4. Lorne Mitchell says:

    Your post reminds me of a quote by Marcus Aurelius:

    “A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.”

    Surely we are noble men (and women) here aspiring to an idea that is above (vulgar) ambition.

    It is up to local leadership to aspire to far greater things than the current status-quo in the Final Third of BT’s Wholesale monopoly, an obsolescent copper network and an inaccessible and unfit-for-purpose passive infrastructure.

    Let’s design – and then get behind – a truly aspirational set of ideas that are higher than any one of us.

    “Best” will only be achieved through a diverse set of solutions being trialled by different organisations. BT’s recent failure on its FTTP trial (and subsequent delay of the whole project) shows the risks if we put all our eggs in one basket.

    For surely this IS, to a greater or lesser extent, an IT problem. We could surely do with a number of enlightened CIOs to set the visions, get some sensible (competing) designs and see the whole programme through.

    • adrian says:

      Less prosaic, the oracle of Wikipedia says

      “Ambition is the desire for personal achievement. It provides the motivation and determination necessary to achieve goals in life”

      “Aspiration is a strong burst of air”

      But then Ambition is from Middle English and Aspiration from Middle French – think I’d rather vulgarly achieve my goals than shrug and exhail 😉

      More seriously, I’m not saying a good CIO can’t make the difference between a good and an excellent bid but that they are the servant of the people who face reality. The role of IT/IS/… is to find technological solutions that make realising progress quicker, easier or more effective – not to dream up technologies, leaving others try to work out what they might be useful for.

  5. Chris Conder says:

    I agree with your last comment Adrian, except I do not see why BDUK have to bother with the easy places at all. If they concentrate on the hardest to reach places the easy ones will be even easier, because the infrastructure will be there and the market will always deliver those anyway. it isn’t government’s job to support an incumbent who makes vast profits.

    The last 10% is the key to it all. Get a connection to them, a futureproof one as you say and not a sticking plaster and the job is done. Take up from them will be 80% or higher. Their connections will be better than anything currently available in the cities if done to the spec of Barry’s plan. The networks will grow and up the ante. Market forces will kick in, the incumbent won’t want to lose its share and we will all have a service that is fit for purpose.

    Our job is to keep reminding everyone that handing public money over to a ‘friendly network operator’ to patch up the easy bits is going to come back and bite them in a very short time. To get a digital britain and get the digital economy moving we need everyone to have a good connection. In order to do this it has to be done in a futureproof way, otherwise it is all to do again. The only way it can be done is to get fibre out to the rural areas, to the communities and the masts. If we don’t do that then the digital divide grows ever wider, and the savings government are hoping to make will never materialise as many will just stay analogue.

    The ROI for the country/gov on getting it right is phenomenal. The price for failure will be written in all the history books, via blogs like this. We have said it. We cannot be deleted. Our words will live in the ether for future generations.

    Do the final third first. Starting with the 10%.

    • adrian says:

      The point I was trying to make was that the business for building a sustainable infrastructure in a sparely populated rural area is all the harder is the local market town has been fixed. Spreading the cost and revenues over a market town and its hinterland is a lot easier – regardless of whether its done by a company, a local authority, a company or a combination of all three. If we focus just on the 10% then the entire cost falls only on the most expensive customers to reach, often with the lowest revenue – it doesn’t matter how you build it, this model offers the worst chances of sustainability.

      By ensuring the strategy is for the whole county, possible, difficult and almost impossible areas can be parcelled together – rather like the LEP process where adjoining areas that identify with each other are encouraged to work together – the cost can be averaged and the sustainability of the whole improved. This doesn’t mean vast county-wide solutions that only huge corporations can engage with, but it will mean more co-ordination at a community level.

  6. Chris Conder says:

    sorry Ade, but it won’t work that way. You can’t apply for funding to do a market town, the RDPE funding for example was for white areas, the bits nobody else wants to do. If you try to do it for a town the telcos shriek ‘state aid rules’ at you. But what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. By far the simplest way rather than these billion pound procurements is to simply get the fibre out into the rural areas at an affordable price for access. A digital parish pump/hub/POP. If there is any funding left once that is done then it should go to laying more fibre. The funding element is what is holding the job up, we would have been better off without it. But there you go, its available, so what we have to do is make sure it is spent on futureproof solutions. The danger now with everyone ‘working together’ is that lack of knowledge in the decision makers leads to clever marketing suits taking the funding and not delivering the goods. This in itself is bad enough, but what is really happening is that funding is not getting to the people who could make the best use of it. So opportunities for innovation are lost. Just like the RDPE project in Lancaster.
    Its not that the telcos need the funding, they just daren’t let anyone else have it.
    Its not that the councils have been dishonest, they just don’t understand physics. They are trying their best but the spin and hype is too much for them, they capitulate. The killer punch has to be the telco saying that they know best. If they knew best we wouldn’t be in this mess.

    We have to focus on the 10%. (Otherwise they will end up with BET). There is no need at all to spend anything on the rest. Market forces will do that. If you get fibre pops to the 10% there are many will step up to deliver the last/first mile service. Vtesse, fibrestream, nextgenus, etc i guess there’s loads more.
    Even more would start up too. Real competition would do the job far faster. And better.
    If we give in now we’ll be stuck on copper for our lifetimes.
    And probably the kids too.

    • adrian says:

      I agree with quite a lot of what you say but we shouldn’t confuse strategy and funding. The strategy should be wider than just 10% even if the funding from BDUK may only be used in the hardest areas; that’s partly why it should draw on other funds from communities, the City, and network operators to make it a long-term sustainable programme.

      You’ve had a bad experience, and you’re not alone, but I don’t tend to lay the blame on spin from major carriers (I’d be doing to the same if I worked for them). It is each local authorities responsibility to take on board all the options and find the right solution for their area. Of course its in the network operators interests to ensure their perspective is understood but it also beholden on the LA to take on board the full picture, especially the strategic aims of the county and the aspirations of their communities. All councils, whether they bid or not, will be judged on the decisions they are making now – as much as the operators who will be judged by their shareholders.

      Any council that takes what they think is an easy path may find they are responsible for a local economy that’s not as competitive as their neighbours, and are unable to realise the cost and efficiency savings others have made. All this is likely to become apparent around the time of the next General Election. I don’t think any council should be contemplating a strategy that risks them going back to central government for more money, especially during the next election, simply because they didn’t understand what they were getting into or because they were too easily persuaded by one stakeholder. If there was one message I’d issue from central government its that this is it – there is no second chance – this is the one and only time to get your broadband strategy right.

      If councils are finding it difficult its because it is, and if they are finding it impossible to solve alone then they need to surround themselves with appropriate advisors and listen to them. Any council that’s finding it easy hasn’t understood the problem.

  7. Chris Conder says:

    haha, appropriate advisors. You can advise till you are blue in the face, but they won’t listen. They listen to the telcos. The best example round here was project Access in the last decade, the money went on copper patch ups. the telcos claimed total success. The people said it was rubbish. Eventually a decent MP rose up and said his people needed access to the internet, then all of a sudden when more funding was made available county, rda and telcos admitted it was all rubbish. they will do the same with this lot of funding too. They will use it to patch up, to put cabinets in urban areas, and make the digital divide even worse. I don’t waste my time writing all this down for my own satisfaction or even my own area. We are going to JFDI anyway, without funding, because we have a proper plan. I do it to expose what has gone on and stop other areas falling for the spin. We have lost ireland, cornwall and lancashire. lets not lose any more, or we will be paying it all out again in another few years. I agree, we have to get it right this last time, but I can’t see it happening unless a radical shift in thinking happens. Perhaps councils weren’t the right ones to be in charge of all this? I voted in the digitalbritain consultation to get this job for them instead of the RDAs, but now I begin to wonder if its out the frying pan into the fire…
    Lancashire found it very easy. They haven’t got any BDUK funds yet that I know of, they have BT advising them. How can a strategic partner do anything other than feather its own nest?

    • adrian says:

      In my experience only a few councils are not listening – but I accept that one of those is very close to you, and they will have to provide answers if they are to demonstrate they are listening. Where councils aren’t getting to grips with this they should be told but assuming because a few aren’t that none are making progress is a big mistake. I could list quite a few councils that I have a dialogue with that are either making good headway or are acknowledging that they need help and are seeking it. Only a tiny minority of those I’m talking to are marching ahead blindly.

      If this process is to be successful then we need to create local spaces where the public sector, the industry and communities can come to a consensus, where we can move beyond brickbats. I’ve had conversations with major network operators that I suspect would surprise you, and there are discussions on-going with local authorities which would take them a very long way outside their comfort zones. I’m confident that there will be areas that deliver great, imaginative results but it won’t be uniform. I’m just trying to put as much effort as I can into making sure as many areas as possible are able to fix the problem permanently.

      And those that don’t? If it matters to people then they need to engage with local politics and oust those responsible. Its not reasonable to hold strong opinions about local politics and just shout form the sidelines.

      • Chris Conder says:

        So on top of trying to build local networks, engage and educate the community, inform and engage local councils, parish county and city we are now responsible for who gets elected and oust the ones we can’t convert? Life is too short Adrian.
        I am really glad that some councils are listening and hope they do the job right first time. If enough of them do then we have no need to worry. It was interesting to note that the leader of our city council lost his seat at the last election, due in no small part to handing over our network funding maybe? 😉
        The sad bit is that most folk live in the urban areas and are likely to be satisfied a while longer with what is available. That is where the voters are and that is what sways the council. They can’t see the bigger picture, and many of their procedures will have to stay analogue for the ones on rubbish connections. In order to save government/edu/health money we need everyone to go digital, and they won’t until it is easy and it works. Brian Condon said that long ago, and its still true.

      • adrian says:

        I never said it was easy! 😉

        I think the urban majority will be very happy for quite a long time to come – Virgin may reach 200 Mbps on their chosen platform and BT will reach 100 Mbps with theirs. So you are right that if decisions are being made from the urban centres, its important that there is a realisation that it isn’t simply a matter of cut-and-paste to do the same for the folks with string holding their trousers up (Rory Stewart’s analogy – not mine! 😉 )

  8. Somerset says:

    chris – it’s more than ‘to get fibre out to the rural areas, to the communities and the masts’. What’s going down the fibre? Why aren’t the mobile companies everywhere, not just connectivity which a few microwave dishes sort but because of the cost of masts, aerials and transmitters.

    Nice a digital parish pump is and sounds, it still has to have services running down it and connectivity into each home and business. Barry’s plan has many km of work and very low cost, what’s the commercial rate after the locals decide they don’t want to do any more?

    When BT roll out ADSL2 to virtually all exchanges plus FTTC to 66% there will be many close to them who feel they have no need for the local fibre, particually as they will be getting IPTV and have packages from Talktalk, Sky and BT Vision.

    Are you really saying councils should install fibre and leave the local people to do something with it? What will be on the far end of this ‘fibre’? Without a comprehensive design and plan (Barry was getting close, but many unanswered questions) any council would be throwing money away.

    It’s not easy. And it’s not the physics, it’s the service that matters, provided on copper, spaghetti, wet string or fibre.

  9. Guy Jarvis says:

    A most interesting blog post and particularly exchange of thinking between Adrian and Chris – thank you both!

    All I will add is that there is a much bigger opportunity here that the inadequacies of current broadband serves to create and that is to be able to reshape the terms of trade.

    In other words, use fundamental technology shift to transform how digital services are offer, at what price and on whose terms.

    This is the killer application of NGA and what drives the vested interests and their lobbyists to distraction.

  10. Somerset says:

    Guy, are the opportunities there for those able to access FTTC and VM 100M.

    Are they being taken up or if not, why not?

    Top priority is getting a sensible speed out to 100% by whatever means. If it’s future proof, even better.

    • adrian says:

      My two penneth – the problem with the current model is its sells bandwidth and not services, so a 100 Meg package really only appeals to early adopters. Looking to Europe there is a stark difference in uptake between what you might call traditionalists and those that rarely mention the technology – those that focus on local and basic services tend to have much higher take-up.

      Very few people know the rating of the fuse on a domestic power supply but no-one has any trouble using it because we don’t have to engage with it – so long as the TV switches on and our dinner is hot we don’t think about how big the electricity pipe is. Broadband is not really very different – or at least it wouldn’t be if the size of the pipe didn’t get in the way.

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