Pipe Dreams? –CMA Comment on UK Broadband

David Brunnen, Leader of the Network Services Group at the Communications Management Association (CMA) has told Comms Business Magazine that not many business managers will read the latest report from the Broadband Stakeholders Group.

“Those that do may wonder why they bothered – but it deserves a second reading. The report, ‘Pipe Dreams?’ is subtitled ‘Prospects for next generation broadband deployment in the UK’. The general answer seems to be that the prospects are not looking very good.

The good news is that the report has made it into the light of day – a remarkable achievement given the tensions between the stakeholders who contributed. The reason for it not containing any earth-shattering surprises also reflects this need to accommodate the tensions between the stakeholders. One observer noted, cynically, that it was not a very encouraging sign that the report was welcomed by both Ofcom and the DTI.

But, despite the report’s diffidence – it was described at the launch event as being ‘very English’ and ‘almost Hugh Grant’ – the nine official Recommendations do provide real fuel for those in the Comms Channel who want to see the sector grow at a pace to match international competition.

The CMA pushed out an immediate news release to flag the importance of the ninth recommendation – the absurd irrelevance of the old Universal Service Obligation and the need for a fresh approach to Universal [broadband] Access. Under the current requirements ‘functional Internet access’ is apparently pegged at 28kb/s – several rungs short of a complete broadband ladder.

Another big theme is the need to remove barriers to investment in fibre. Other countries seem to have tackled this without difficulty but the UK seems beset with umpteen ‘jobs-worth’ snags – from the regulation of street-works to the frankly weird local government rating issues that apply to optical fibre but not to copper.

It may be very sad that that the BSG cannot say it like it really is, but we should still give the drafting team some credit. Read recommendation number seven twice or perhaps three times and you’ll eventually get the drift. What it means to say (but technically doesn’t, Minister) is that we will need public sector intervention if we are to stand a hope in hell of not being a third world broadband country and we had better get on with working out how best to do this.

There’s very little joy in this report for the proponents of wireless in the last mile – or first mile, as consumers see it. Compared to fibre, WiMAX looks more like WiMIN, and the best reason for going down the wireless route is that it’s imagined that incumbents won’t be fagged to fibre far flung places – yet another good reason for encouraging new investors and new commercial models.

The government is keen to proclaim the success of its policy – a ‘job done’ tick in the broadband box. Even ignoring the debate as to whether the 99% claims are valid, the reality is that the job is far from done in terms of a broadband infrastructure that will deliver the level of throughput performance and affordability needed for the next generations of business services.

Full marks then to the brave soul who came up with the report title ‘Pipe Dreams’ – even if the ‘let’s keep an open mind’ committee had to add the question mark. Maybe someone should have pointed out that if you keep an open mind there is some danger of your brains falling out.

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