Digital Britain: modernising the UK’s fixed-line communications infrastructure
The publication of the Digital Britain White Paper provides one of the first new government policy statements towards Building Britain’s Future. This is a welcome return to policy setting as the role of government and, by the extent of news coverage, it looks as though most of the media is also glad to have something new to get its teeth into.
Digital Britain is a joint initiative from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. In just eight months, its output has been prodigious and the scope at least of its aims has been ambitious. The Prime Minister, who stands fully behind the White Paper, delivered an article for The Times referring to high-speed communications infrastructure being as vital as water and gas – an audacious claim, and one for which he has taken some rather unfair criticism given that he was more or less quoting the outcome of recent research commissioned by Ofcom’s Consumer Panel. In any case, the relative, rather than the absolute, approach is no doubt the correct one to adopt here.
It is unarguable, however, that broadband service, at a certain minimum speed, is becoming increasingly essential to modern citizens: as the report argues, we are reaching a ‘tipping point’ under which high-speed broadband networks (i.e. those based on next generation fibre networks at the level of the infrastructure nearest to people’s homes, rather than the traditional copper-based networks) are ‘moving from conferring advantage on those who are in it to conferring active disadvantage on those who are without.’
The White Paper has three notable policy initiatives to offer concerning the modernisation of the UK’s communications infrastructure:
- A commitment to universal broadband, delivering a minimum service speed of 2 Mbps, by 2012. This was trailed in the interim Digital Britain report and is welcome, providing an enhanced service for around 2.75m households. The extension of the existing requirement for universal service to broadband is a logical step in the digital switchover programme as well as being one based on sound policy goals of delivering social inclusion and a more cohesive society. Why 2 megabits per second? It’s the minimum speed at which high definition TV pictures can reliably be delivered over the internet.
What remains to be done is to determine the type of networks (fixed, mobile, satellite) over which that commitment will be met; what can be done where the level of strain on the network caused by many people in the same locality accessing the internet at one time (so-called ‘contention’ problems) leads to speeds dropping well below 2 Mbps; and how the definition of what is an appropriate minimum access speed will be changed over time. This latter is a key requirement, but the White Paper was disappointingly unfocused on a mechanism for providing the regular review which is required if the commitment is to have any meaning as products and services continue to evolve after 2012.
- The ‘Final Third’ project, delivering high-speed broadband to 90% of homes by 2017. This too is a welcome target for ensuring the vast majority of UK homes are connected to next generation networks at the local level. The White Paper recognises that ‘there is no obvious means whereby the market, unaided, will serve the final third of the population’ in terms of high-speed broadband access. We would agree, having argued for some time that market-based solutions will not deliver cohesive, even patterns of development or to the timetable required by public policy. Even so, this is the first time that an official publication has recognised the likely extent of market failure in this direction and the White Paper here has been particularly bold.
The means for delivering high speed broadband access beyond the market is proposed to be a Next Generation Fund, produced on the basis of a 50p per month consumer levy and generating a small-ish fund of around £150m-£175m per year. This is a particularly interesting development, recognising as the White Paper implicitly does that the development of the consumer broadband market on the basis of ever-increasing speeds at ever-cheaper prices has failed to generate the funds necessary for the renewal of the infrastructure over which broadband is delivered, however good this has been (at least, in the short-term) for consumers. So, this small levy would seem to be a step in the right direction in correcting the regulatory failures that have produced such a distorted market.
The Fund is intended to be used on the basis of infrastructure suppliers winning tenders to supply high-speed local access networks at auctions, but it would seem that much more thought is required into what implications this is likely to have for network operators.
- Ofcom’s focus and priorities. In a telling section, the White Paper accurately comments that ‘the competitive market has delivered significant upgrades in performance [of the fixed telecoms network], but not the massive investment required to redevelop the fundamentals of network infrastructure.’ That’s agreed, as we have said, but the White Paper doesn’t stop at the consumer levy, it goes on to argue for legislative amendments which ‘make the promotion of investment in communications infrastructure one of Ofcom’s principal duties.’ This is a long overdue development and is welcome in terms of its potential for ensuring that the regulatory regime is, in the future, appropriately adapted to the needs of infrastructure investors, as well as from the perspective of ensuring that such market and regulatory failures are less likely to inhibit infrastructure investment.
There is much more to digest in the White Paper’s analysis and conclusions. Immediately, there is also much to welcome in its attempts to secure the modernisation of the UK’s communications infrastructure in the interests of the further development and competitive advantage of the UK economy. In helping to get this country back to policy, it is also assuming a very important role in the politics of this time: a strange comment to make, perhaps, about a White Paper whose goals are so clearly long-term and so unarguable in their overall direction but, nevertheless, this is a very clear task that the White Paper must fulfil.