There is growing debate about the concept of a copper switch-off, where the 19th century communications revolution makes way for a 21st century successor. And the recently announced Ofcom Strategic Review is a major opportunity to gather consensus on it.
It is certainly true that investors in telecommunications would welcome this – it would set out the terms and timescale for change, allowing them to bet on the runners.
However before we can contemplate how this might happen, policy makers and the regulator need to have a clear idea of what the new market will look like. For example, will it result in a market with many infrastructure providers, or a small clutch?
And then it will need to consider how to deal with the universal service obligations (USO) so everyone has access to basic services as they do today, and what would an open services market look like if the market moves from one dominant operator and many service providers to one with many operators and many services providers? And does this require a structural or functional separation between an operator’s infrastructure and their own service platforms, even for small operators if they become local natural monopolies?
Cotswolds Broadband’s programme in West Oxfordshire is adopting a form of USO as part of its commitment to West Oxfordshire District Council and has committed to only delivering wholesale services on an equivalence basis, and I understand See The Light, IFNL’s ISP has gone the extra mile to ensure it complies the regulations for handling emergency calls just as an incumbent would.
So the alternative operator market is starting prepare itself for the day copper gets switched off and they may be asked to become the incumbent operator for the areas they cover, and these developments are welcome news for investors and policy makers alike.
While significant questions remain largely unanswered around the functioning of a services market – how service providers efficiently work with multiple operators – but the debate is at least starting happening after many false starts and a number of options are emerging.
The Ofcom Strategic Review of Digital Communications hopefully provides a further impetus develop this debate.
However, in the past there has been a tendency in the UK to view the move to ever faster broadband services as an evolution, when any operator that’s made the transition will know its a totally different and new market.
Any decisions around the future shape of the telecoms market by the regulator needs to acknowledge this revolution or risk accusations of regulatory capture, locking in old assumptions for generations to come.
The Ofcom strategic review is an opportunity for operators, policy makers and the regulator to think anew and lay the foundations for a bright digital future for Britain.