By Matthew Howett, lead analyst, regulatory telecoms, Ovum
For a long time it was joked that the UK was on a 'low-fiber diet' and that the government's broadband policy represented a 'poverty of ambition for a digital Britain'.
Today the report of the Lords Select Committee on Communications adds to these cries and calls on the government to set out an even bolder vision for broadband policy than is currently being followed. However with nearly 50 recommendations and no indication of costs or how they should be met, it's likely to be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe dream.
The report mixes at times a good narrative of how we ended up where we are with some questionable recommendations. It rightly criticises the vague ambition set out by the government to 'have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015', and calls for more clarity on speeds. As ISPs themselves are increasingly criticised for the advertising of misleading speeds, it only seems right that the government is clearer when outlining its ambitions. It is also welcomed that the obsession should not just be on the availability of products with certain speeds, but also the number of people using them. Despite 60% of all households having access to superfast speeds, just over 6% are using them. Any government led strategy should also think about the poetry as well as the plumbing.
However there are aspects of the report that will strike many as simply odd. Some recommendations appear to ignore the fact that access to BT's network (both copper and fiber) is already available on equivalent and non-discriminatory terms and that winners of BDUK funding must provide open wholesale access to their networks. It also criticises the government for giving time for market forces to play out. Whilst this is most likely by accident rather than design, it has shown that the private sector is still willing and able to roll out next-generation broadband services to parts of the country that were originally thought of as underserved.
The report is also noteworthy for its inconsistencies. Despite criticizing the government for dismissing technologies such as white space, it fails to make almost any mention of how mobile might contribute to bringing broadband to all areas of the UK. Other than a recommendation that all existing spectrum should be handed over to mobile operators and current TV traffic moves over to IP - with seemingly no consideration of the consequence this would have on bandwidth demands or incentives to invest in the network.
There are certainly things that the government could and should be doing that it's not currently. The Lords' report rightly highlights the importance of mobile as an affordable option to reach some areas of the UK and also that Ofcom should foster the use of other communications' provider's infrastructure. With the former Ofcom should consider the possibility of mobile operators using existing passive infrastructure for backhauling mobile and to address the later - extend the duct access obligation currently on BT to other communications providers. There are also many other barriers faced by network operators, such as those relating to street-works, that need desperate reform which promisingly might now get looked at.
More generally, in recent years there seems to have become an increasing disconnect between the government and regulator on policy aims and objectives. The most striking example is probably the long-awaited award of spectrum for 4G mobile services. At times the regulator seemed to lack basic understanding of what operators were likely to do with the spectrum and failed to design an auction accordingly. Similarly the government seems to have ignored warnings that the UK risks slipping behind unless the currently planned auction stays on track. With well-targeted intervention the government could make the difference it wants to. At the moment it seems unsure just exactly what it should be doing.