State Aid, broadband and the art of the possible

The UK’s relationship with EU State Aid rules often feels a little difficult but its a complex area where few seem to really understand the art of the possible.

Recently a group of UK cities were reported as saying that state aid rule were blocking investment in broadband in their cities while enabling it in rural areas, and I was quoted in an article suggesting the UK Government is blocking funds for broadband.

Its not my view that funds are being blocked but I do feel that understanding of what the state aid rules can permit is not widespread, and UK public bodies often seem more risk averse than some of their European colleagues; a generalisation but certainly many of the smaller, more decentralized countries struggle less with state aid than the UK does. This can result in a narrower and more cautious approach to issues like broadband.

Three years ago I reported that the level of fibre-based broadband in a country was often inversely correlated to the number of state aid applications for broadband. At the time, the UK had by far the highest number of state aid applications for subsidising broadband investment yet remained unranked in the FttH Council’s European fibre league table, while the Scandinavian countries riding high in the league table also had very few state aid applications.

Let’s be clear: The reason isn’t because UK bodies are deliberately blocking funds for broadband or because the EU has sneakily added rules which target the UK in some way.

Often it’s simply because countries with lower levels aid applications have public bodies with a higher tolerance for risk so their interventions aren’t viewed in the same way by the European Commission.

The rules exist to ensure that when members states opt to intervene in a market, broadband operators in this case, they minimise the resulting market distortion. As covered here before, loan guarantees are considered less distorting than grants, for example.

However, less distorting interventions, like public loans or equity investments, also tend to result in the public body maintaining a longer-term direct involvement in the solution. On the downside this can mean accepting some additional delivery risk but it also means the public body can continue to directly influence the delivery of their social and economic goals.

While I don’t agree that UK public bodies are deliberately blocking funding for broadband, I do believe that a wider understanding of the art of the possible and a measured but enlarged appetite for risk would pay dividends for all.


A week in broadband – net neutrality, content and competition

Its been and interesting week to contrast the discussions and shifts in the broadband markets in the UK and the US.

In the US, the Net Neutrality debate is coming to a head as President Obama sharing his thoughts and with the FCC now considering how they might inject some additional layers of competition in an attempt to use market forces to avoid operators fiddling with customers traffic.

At the same time there are UK reports that  BT may be considering the scrapping their Wholesale division in favour of Openreach, reducing the separation between their infrastructure and the services that flow over it.

The timing of the latter reports couldn’t be better timed for the FCC’s deliberations.

In principle the UK has a market which creates a distinction between services and infrastructure; it is true the Europe doesn’t have the scale of problems the US has with net neutrality but our markets are certainly not in rude health.

To contrast the very different attitudes to net neutrality in Europe, its worth remembering that Eircom, the Irish incumbent was proud to advertise traffic fiddling, sorry shaped traffic, as a customer benefit offered at no extra cost to their valued customers!

Casting your mind back to the early dial-up days in the UK, there were innumerable ISP’s; many small, some large, and all with an individual, independent air about them. Remember Nildram? Pipex?

As the broadband market emerged there was significant market consolidation. Its possible, sensible even, to argue that this is a natural phase for any new market as it matures but today we have a very small clutch of vast service providers with a group of tiny, tenacious ISPs hanging onto a low single-digit percentage market share.

The UK’s flavour of net neutrality is less about meddling with content but with the content itself as BT and Sky wrangle over rights to sports with rugby fans currently the big losers.

The question the FCC needs to ask is “Why is this happening in the UK?”

Healthy markets rely on the participants’ abilities to differentiate and innovate. The ADSL broadband market was created such that the only significant differentiators were price and brand, and the only innovation was in the business model – the smartest way to give it away. Unchecked, this can only lead to the “pile it high, sell it cheap” environment with a small number of vast, lean organisations we have in the UK today. This isn’t a criticism of these organisations, either – they have been the most successful in coping with the market pressures.

The move to FttC (BT’s Infinity) has further impacted the scope for competition because its simply not commercially viable to deploy VDSL in competition to the incumbent with any scale. With no physical infrastructure unbundling there are no differentiators left apart from a brand associated with the content you permit over your service. This is the source of the inevitable and harmful battles over sporting rights with fans the biggest losers.

If the FCC are serious about using market forces to regulate net neutrality, they need to consider what the competition will be based on. A non-descript and narrow commodity market will result in a temporary pain relief and a diversion while the new service providers storm, form and then battle for content rights, taking the market full-circle but for more complex and expensive reasons; customers will increasingly become secondary as the competition becomes ever more concentrated and the battles ever more critical to the providers’ survival.

A US market will need to be created based on a set of products which can be combined to create a rich and diverse market, with ample scope for market players to innovate, and with sensible returns possible for all players in the market.

The UK doesn’t currently have this but if the FCC is smart it could start to lead the way if it learns from the UK experiment.

The fall-out for the UK?

If left unchecked, the trend suggests we should expect Sky to get more engaged in fibre infrastructure (they’ve just applied for code powers to dig up the roads) as BT gets more involved in content, and with BT preparing to use its 4G licence expect Vodafone to spend some of their considerable cash pile to get more interested in UK fixed broadband (Talktalk a target, perhaps?).

In other words, the links between content and delivery will grow stronger and the shape of competition more concentrated in the hands of an even smaller group of even bigger players with business models converging on Virgin Media’s (read: Comcast’s) cable model. And as this happens, expect Netflix, Google and Amazon to get more concerned about how their traffic is treated.

The UK’s trajectory is back to earth with a model not unlike the one the US is trying to escape.

Principles of intervening in broadband & digital isolation

Following on from the previous post, “Public or Private“, which looked at the different models of public intervention in markets generally, this post begins to explore the different models for intervention in broadband markets. This is not a practical critique of any particular approach – more a quick look at the theory.

The basis of this is the same scale of intervention used in the previous post, ranging from light touch loan guarantees through to a state utility model. It begins with the assumption that the market will  invest up to a natural limit; this limit may vary from company to company but will be based on some measure of digital isolation.

A key complexity for public bodies is how to determine the market’s limit for investment. Broadband markets, as distinct from traditional telecommunications markets, increasingly contain a broader range of companies and capabilities; some of these are emergent trends while some are established niche operators. This trend creates a complexity and often a degree of risk that administrations considering a broadband intervention need to assess.

Its clear from even a cursory review of international interventions that there is no universal view of this, with some administrations favouring a more traditional telecommunications play, leveraging a small number of larger, established operators, where other administrations are looking to include a wider spectrum of alternative, new and niche operators. Ultimately this will depend on national culture, the appetite for risk within the administration, and the level of stability within the niche and emerging sectors.

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Public or private?

I seem to have found myself in a number of discussions recently where the role of public and private funding has become a hot topic – not specific to any scheme or country but in general – so I decided to write up my own view of this.

Most parts of the modern world take a position that private enterprise should prosper where it makes sense, and that Government support of some kind should be focussed where its most needed. I haven’t met any fundamentalists recently so no-one questioned this and the focus of debate was primarily on when should the state intervene and what form should the intervention take.

Personally I like graphs – especially ones with axes that have no clearly identifiable scales – so this is my graph of where and how might a state fund industry.

The nature of public funding

On the vertical axis is the expectation of “commercial return” likely to be measured in terms if Internal Rate of Return (IRR), etc. On the horizontal is the expectation of “economic return” measured in terms of Gross Value Add (GVA) or Economic Rate of Return (ERR).

Continue reading “Public or private?” »

National legislation with global impacts

The Internet blackout by many of the big names in response to proposed US legislation isn’t the first time law makers and internet pioneers have faced up to each other, and its also not the first time that national legislation, attempting to target a national issue, has had potentially significant impacts on the running of the international internet.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about the global challenges being posed by the US proposal for a domestic “Internet kill switch“; if the US Government were to switch off the US portions of the Internet it would not just deny UK citizens access to common services but may also kill entire portions of the UK’s internet access because of the global nature of internet peering.

There is no simple answer to this. Of course national Governments must act in their own self-interests but when it comes to the Internet the impact is seldom felt by local citizens alone. Internet Governance, thus far, has been largely successful in developing a fairly egalitarian, global phenomenon outside of national governance but we are entering a new world where national security, health and prosperity depend on the future running of the Internet – this makes it politically very important, not least to key knowledge economies like the UK.

US citizens have typically been more aware of this than many other nations – the importance of net-neutrality is a deeply emotional, heart-felt thing in the US but has so far been largely missed by UK citizens and is totally ignored in Ireland where the lack of transparency is actively marketed by the largest operator.

The reaction to the Internet blackout in response to the US SOPA proposals was interesting. It seemed to mark the awakening of debate beyond the US. I didn’t hear much from politicians outside of the US but the interest from commentators went beyond simply bemoaning that they couldn’t look things up on Wikipedia. When Jonathan Agnew from BBC’s Test Match Special comments about the importance of the internet and the problems that SOPA may introduce on Twitter, then it must have become mainstream.

My own position is that while copyright of course needs to be protected, the ramifications of any loosely drafted legislation can have far wider impacts, and the implementation of internet legislation specifically will always have implications far beyond national boundaries. Any Government considering a move like this today has a responsibility to world citizens and not just the self-interests of one sector of their local economy.

Today requires a generation of Internet-savvy politicians who can find new world solutions to old world problems like copyright.

What’s actually going on?

It still surprises me that after 18 months there seems to be confusion in the twittersphere about what is actually happening in terms of broadband deployment and the goal of the government’s policy.

There have been conversations which seem to jump from a position that fibre to every home is the only real NGA solution to suggesting they are being short-changed by some mythical NGA satellite with nothing in between.

This is far from a simple binary mechanism – anyone who suggests “Fibre good, everything else bad” is at best badly misinformed. The debate is far too important to be stifled by this kind of mantra – it has to move on.

One of the great shifts in thinking within the industry has been to consider multiple solutions – gone are the days when ADSL won simply because it was the best solution to reach the widest audience. Now the best technology from a basket of possible solutions is becoming the norm.

So this is my attempt to make it all a little clearer – hopefully.

There are essentially two different government broadband policies:

  1. Basic broadband – To ensure everyone has access to at least 2 Mbps
  2. NGA broadband  – To make the UK the best superfast broadband market in Europe

Both policies are currently working towards 2015, and both are being delivered by BDUK. But, while the delivery of NGA broadband may have some impact on the basic broadband policy, they are essentially two different things – basic broadband is not NGA and vice versa! This is a simple undeniable fact.

The two EU Black/Grey/White models

The grid shows how these two different measures – NGA and basic broadband – are likely to play out in the UK. The purple area is where the commercial developments will focus, and the red is where the Government’s policy will have its key impact – the black boarder around the NGA White/Basic White is where the rural community broadband fund will focus.

NGA Broadband

The definitions of NGA and superfast broadband are many and varied but essentially the Government’s goal is to deliver fibre to the cabinet to 90% of the population as a base reference offer – that is not the same as actually delivering FttC to 90%, only that this is the base upon which other solutions will be measured.

It means that a company wanting to bid into the framework will need to offer at least FttC but will be able to deliver FttP or anything else they can successfully argue delivers at least as much as FttC.

The EU currently views NGA as a fibre-based fixed-line solution and specifically excludes satellite and wireless solutions; it is highly likely that some microwave technologies will be included in future definitions if they deliver specific characteristics but unlicensed and light licensed solutions like WiFi are unlikely to be ever considered as NGA even if they deliver high speeds.

Any suggestion that satellite or BT’s BET are NGA is simply wrong, and I’ve never heard anyone in either BT or the satellite industry claim otherwise! Just ignore anyone who suggests they are, they simply aren’t credible.

The main NGA contenders today are FttC/VDSL and FttP in both point-2-point/Ethernet or PON variants.

Changes to NGA broadband in the UK

The two bar charts above attempt to show the impact of the Government’s policy on NGA broadband. Today there are commercial pledges to deliver a competitive physical infrastructure to at least 50% of the country, predominantly in the areas where Virgin Media are updating their cable network and BT is delivering their Infinity service.

In addition, BT has pledged to reach two-thirds of the country with an open-access wholesale service, making a further 17% Grey in the EU’s language. This leaves the “final third” where traditional commercial approaches begin to fail.

The Government’s aim is to extend the Grey area from 17% of the population to 40%, with only 10% of the population unlikely to see NGA services in the medium term.

Why only Grey? I find it difficult to see a case where the Government would invest in a competing NGA platform where one already exists but it is at least a theoretical possibility if the existing NGA service doesn’t deliver a whole service and is vertically integrated. As I’ve written before, if you run an NGA network and you don’t offer wholesale competition then you are carrying a risk that it is at least legal for the state to subsidise a competitor even if its poor value for public funds and probably unlikely to happen.

The focus of the £20m rural community broadband fund is on this final 10%, where communities are prepared to become more actively involved in a more ambitious plan.

Basic Broadband

Today its possible to argue that anything above 512 kbps might be classed as broadband; the Government is redefining that as 2 Mbps and that it should be as near universal as practicable.

Changes to basic broadband in the UK

The bar charts above show how today there are in fact two degrees of White basic broadband – there are those that currently receive a services above 2 Mbps but have no choice of provider, and those below 2 Mbps regardless of how much competition there may be at the telephone exchange. The Government’s policy is to remove the top White section, where services are less than 2 Mbps.

Some of this will be solved by the NGA plans – there are locations where the cabinet, as well as the premises, is a long way from the exchange. Evidence is already beginning to appear where BT is deploying Infinity in Hertfordshire with some homes now in an NGA Grey area when they were previously in a notspot – it is also the focus of organisations like Rutland Telecom.

Where the NGA policy won’t solve the notspot problem, the Government will intervene to ensure all premises are reasonably able to receive at least 2 Mbps.

In communities where the 2 Mbps offer doesn’t meet their ambition, the £20m rural community broadband fund may be able to help turn a basic broadband offer into a viable NGA plan where the community will exists.

Steering the QE2

The hand wringing over the global economy continues, and the UK is now having to consider a second round of quantitative easing (QE – hope no-one thinks this will be about luxury cruises).

In normal times we have Qualitative Easing – changing the quality of the money supply by adjusting interest rates. When you can no longer adjust the quality of money then you need to adjust the quantity – in earlier times that meant printing new notes but today that typically means the central bank buys bonds (debt).

The last Government’s QE1 programme resulted in the Bank of England buying government bonds, and the money was used to fund general government expenditure. This resulted in criticism from some quarters that the new cash didn’t optimise its impact on the wider economy. Expanding the money in circulation can have two high-level impacts:

  • It can ensure money is circulating so the economy doesn’t stop, and
  • It can be used to re-shape the economy so its more competitive when recovery comes.

It was certainly true that the former happened – because nurses and policemen kept their jobs and were paid the economy kept flowing. But the process didn’t have any lasting impact on the efficiency of the economy.

If we are to have a second round of quantitative easing, so called QE2, then a lasting impact will require investment in the shape of the economy – infrastructure, for example.

It is widely accepted that the funds available to BDUK form only a small proportion of the investment needed to ensure every UK business benefits from super-fast broadband, even when added to the level of funding already committed by the industry. However, if QE2 was used to underwrite local authority bond issues, the sums committed to broadband could be dramatically increased – and I purposefully use the word “underwrite” rather than simply “buy”.

Under the localism agenda, communities are encouraged to become more involved in their area but for many its simply not reasonable for them to build their own broadband infrastructure as it was the first time around, but that isn’t to say they don’t have a role beyond simply marketing the benefits of broadband.

By encouraging their local authority to issue infrastructure bonds, the community may be encouraged to invest in their future; by having the Bank of England underwrite the issue means the risk is somewhat reduced and the full funds may be raised in areas where there isn’t the investment cash available. This could be the 21st century “Tell Sid” campaign!

By using a local authority to issue the bonds, rather than a commercial telecoms company, ensures the wider economic impact for the area can be embeded in the process, alongside the commercial reality.

But since bonds are essentially long term loans that need to be paid back at some point in the future, today’s preferred gap funding models favoured by BDUK may not be ideal. As the local authority is today essentially providing grants to a third party to own, build and operate the network, there is no obvious mechanism for the local authority to recoup such an investment.

However, a model where the local authority issues a concession to a third party to build and operate the network but ownership remains with the local authority – or at least a stake is owned by the local authority – means they can at a later date refinance their investment to repay the bonds.

The UK already has examples of this kind of structure. NYnet in North Yorkshire is an example where the local authority retains 100% ownership, while FibreSpeed is a joint-venture model between Geo and the Welsh Assembly Government. There are pro’s and con’s to both approaches but the essence is the same – the bond owner would retain a stake to secure their investment.

I’ve no idea if we will see QE2 but if we do, this kind of approach would ensure not just the immediate re-floating of the economy but also a longer lasting impact on the UK competitiveness – we could become the first G20 country to have a fibre switch-over!

Its all about black and white

Anyone who has been close to any public sector involvement in broadband is likely to have come across references to Black, White and Grey areas but I get the impression that the meaning is often not well understood; this is perhaps not surprising because there are in fact two models and rarely in my experience is the specific one being used named.

A bit of background. In 2009 the EU laid down some guidelines on where it was reasonable for a state to consider intervening in the broadband market; this introduced the concept of Black, White and Grey areas for classifying market failure in both NGA and basic broadband areas. A black area is generally one with a strong, competitive market; grey with a developing market; and White where the market has essentially failed. White does not necessarily mean there is no broadband, just no functioning market.

Basic Broadband

  • A Black area is one which has two competing fixed line infrastructures. So in the UK that typically means areas where both BT and Virgin offer services.
  • A Grey area is one where there is only a single physical infrastructure but it supports a wholesale marketplace. In the UK this covers any unbundled telephone exchange where there is no cable service, for example. Perhaps surprisingly this covers both Ofcom market 2 and 3 areas.
  • A White area is one where there is no choice of physical infrastructure and no wholesale marketplace. This in the UK means Ofcom Market 1 areas with no other infrastructure.

NGA Broadband

The definition for NGA is broadly the same:

  • An area with competing NGA broadband infrastructures would be an NGA Black area. In the UK that might mean an area with both Virgin DOCSIS3 and BT Infinity services, for example. Somewhere like Bournemouth with City Fibre and Virgin would also be Black.
  • An NGA Grey area is where there is only a single NGA provider with a wholesale market. This means an area with only BT Infinity would be classed as Grey – but an area with only Virgin would not as they don’t wholesale access services.
  • An NGA White area is one where there is currently is no NGA market available and no credible plans to deliver an NGA service within 3 years. This could include areas where Virgin is the only NGA operator and the footprint of many community projects like Alston Cybermoor as they don’t currently wholesale their services.

There are some major caveats in this!!

Only fibre-based fixed-line technologies are currently considered NGA technologies – wireless and satellite are currently considered “complimentary” and an area served by either is not considered as NGA Grey or Black. This means an operator using a Gigabit microwave technology could legitimately face state subsidised competition from a 40 Mbps FttC provider – FiWi is not currently protected! This may (should!) change but its a risk that needs to be born in mind today!

What’s an Area?

The EU guidelines recommend that an “area” isn’t defined as an exchange district as it may benefit the incumbent. So what is an area? At the moment this is something of a grey area, to stay with the theme. The UK government is providing local authorities with some latitude to choose between postcode areas and ONS “super output areas” (LSOA).

For a community thinking of building their own broadband solution, this loose definition may be critical. A postcode may only have 20-40 premises while a LSOA typically has about 400. A small community scheme may be protected from subsidised competition if the local authority decides to use postcodes as their defining area.

BUT if the LA uses super output areas as their measure, then any network which is much less than 400 premises could face a competitor legitimately subsidised by the BDUK framework.

Since BDUK are currently modelling communities as groups of around 100 premises, this seems rather contradictory.

BDUK Ambitions

The three years rule means that BDUK are able to focus their funding on the final third – the bit that BT haven’t formally announced. Their ambition appears to be to increase the NGA Grey and Black coverage from 66% to 90%. In the final 10% they want to ensure its at least Basic Broadband Grey (ie at least a single wholesale infrastructure).

NB: Big things you can’t ignore!

  1. Anyone considering building a network, whatever their motives, needs to make sure both BDUK and the relevant local authority are completely aware, not just of the currently footprint but the credible expansion plans covering the next three years. Failing to be on their radar may mean state subsidised competition and a battle over illegal state aid few smaller operators will be able to afford.
  2. A vague intention to offer wholesale services or simply making an offer to the market that is ignored is not good enough to be classed as “Grey” – you need to demonstrate a functioning wholesale market! Failing to demonstrate real wholesale agreements means your area remains “White” and could be legitimately subsidised. Working with a  national franchise model like Broadway Partners and including an existing mediator that can deliver a proven wholesale market will certainly help both whether you’re at the planning or delivery stage!
  3. And communities going it alone need to know what their local authority considers to be an “area” – if its an ONS LSOA, make sure your project covers one!

The more you think about this, the more implications you will stumble across. This a very messy, complex, and shifting space. Whoever you are, don’t do it alone!

Everything should be made as simple as possible. . .

The debate about what’s going wrong with the broadband policy is becoming quite complex, messy and somewhat emotional.

For me, the key policy of making the UK the best “superfast” (meaning > 24 Mbps) broadband market in Europe is the right one. Delivering that in tandem with the localism bill and while supporting SMEs couldn’t be better. These are all things that get my total support – and I hear very few detractors (quite the opposite).

The rub for many people seems to be in the delivery – a matter of policy implementation and interpretation. A key example (totem?) is the framework which contains what appears to be little more than lip service to the policy – an opening few paragraphs that give the appearance of supporting the policy followed by a long list of qualifying criteria which, one by one, chip away at the goals until there is almost nothing left – even the stated objective of super-fast broadband seems to have been discarded, or at best re-framed, along the way.

There have been conspiracy theories that this is a stitch up between Government and BT but I don’t support that for one minute. To begin with, I suspect that the framework isn’t something BT would prefer to support but will pragmatically go along with as its what’s on offer.

Einstein is quoted as saying:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

For me this is a case of a very complex problem that’s been reduced beyond the possible degree of simplicity – the framework assumes a level of homogeneity of technology, scale, business model, financing, risk, partnership and so forth that just isn’t possible – BUT it is much simpler to manage.

The original policy objectives appear to have got lost in a drive to find the optimal process – or at least the one that’s the least bother to oversee.

This isn’t a time for a difficult u-turn – this is a time for politicians to crack the whip and make sure the policy is implemented as stated.

There are very good people inside BDUK, and they didn’t suddenly switch off. Something has happened that group at the top – whether it was the change of management or the influence of KPMG but it is something that can be corrected – but time is not on anyone’s side. One or the other or both need refocussing, and very soon.

BDUK Framework update

Since I wrote about the impending BDUK procurement framework, there seems to have been a little movement which I think it right to acknowledge.

I wrote that a source told me that the framework would require revenues of at least £40m in each of the last two years – in the “final draft” I understand is due for publication tomorrow (Thursday 30th June) this has been reduced to £20m, and it includes the following paragraph:

“In line with the Coalition Government’s policy on supplier diversity, DCMS is designing the framework agreement to maximise opportunities for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to form part of framework suppliers’ supply chains for projects where appropriate”

Does that mean SME’s and the bulk of the industry currently building and operating NGA networks will be able to join? Almost certainly not!

There is just a four week window proposed in which companies can form partnerships and consortia, leaving the smaller, specialist companies that are already busy building networks very little time to negotiate the terms any sub-contracting agreement – most probably with a much larger company that has far less experience of building networks than they do.

In theory, excluded companies could club together to form a consortium of fantastic expertise BUT if the consortium isn’t formally incorporated then each member has to demonstrate the same requirements as if they has applied individually. Which in addition to requiring at least £20m in revenues, I understand may also require that you have delivered services to at least 30,000 premises excluding back-haul (so that’s major names like Geo and Vtesse probably disqualified).

So unless something radical happens in the next 24 hours, assume that the Government won’t be supporting the nascent NGA industry:

“The framework agreement is expected to be the procurement vehicle for the majority of local broadband projects once they have been allocated BDUK funding. There may be a small number oflocal broadband projects that do not use the framework agreement and this will be agreed with BDUK.”

It would seem that the best we can hope is that the contracts BDUK let won’t simply roll over the much more creative, ambitious and forward thinking projects that are already under-way from the bulk of the industry this process appears to be excluding.

Yesterday I wrote about the hopes and ambitions of Chipping Norton in David Cameron’s constituency. This framework may well turn out to be a significant threat to Big Society community actions like theirs. The gap between policy and action is now becoming a chasm.

(I’ll let others tell you how “superfast” appears to redefined, making it easier to achieve)

Let’s hope the next coming hours see a serious re-think!

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