BT’s MD of NGA broadband, Bill Murphy, gave a rare and frank interview to Computer Weekly recently. Its well worth reading as it provides an excellent state of the nation view of Britain’s broadband market from the very specific perspective of the UK’s largest operator.

Its not a perspective that all will agree with but much of what Bill says I do agree with. The case for better broadband is, as he says, a question of risk and economics but, as Bill would no doubt expect, I don’t entirely agree with some of what he says.

Lets start with the BDUK process. I agree with Bill when he says says risk was central to the process but not in quite the same way he means. Civil Servants have a tendency, some would say a duty, to be risk averse when it comes to spending public funds, so there is a certain inevitability that any process which seeks to find a partner to deliver the future of Britain’s digital economy will eventually find its way to feet of the biggest, oldest, arguably most conservative organisation in the market, especially when the rest of the market at the time was largely new and untested.

I said at the time that if the UK wanted to create a more competitive infrastructure market then the process needed to find a way to develop the nascent operator market but that would have required a greater appetite to understand, mitigate and manage risk.

The original process didn’t just mitigate risk, it virtually eliminated it for the public sector, something no other operator could do. With greater understanding of what’s possible and with the more complex nature of the remaining territory there may be a greater appetite to engage more “risky” solutions in the final push to universal superfast broadband. I believe we are now beginning to see this happen, albeit very late in the day and on a very small scale but it is happening, and personally I hope it continues as I think it will be good for the economy and ironically it may also be good for BT (if they allow these projects to develop).

Secondly, Digital Region failed for all the reasons Bill cites but the root cause was seeded when a sound vision was translated into poorly conceived strategy, and exacerbated by poor execution decisions at a senior level that was inappropriate to a project of this kind.

A key lesson from Digital Region in my mind is to ensure the right mix of sector specialists and commercial people to balance public sector stakeholders to ensure it results in something the market can engage with – Digital Region failed to do that, with a tendency to behave more like a public sector body making decision that lacked commercial smarts resulting in expensive and challengingly different market offerings.

Bill has done a remarkable job for BT, and he remains someone I deeply respect. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with him but to dismiss what he says is a dangerous thing to do – whatever your view of him, he remains a big beast of UK broadband.

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