PICTFOR debates UK transition to superfast broadband and 4G

  • PICTFOR Co-Chairs Chi Onwurah MP and Stephen Mosley MP led proceedings in Westminster Hall

  • Panel speakers included Rory Stewart MP and representatives from BT, EE, Vodafone, B4RN and Gigaclear

  • Issues discussed included infrastructure competition, planning regulations, superfast speeds and the digital divide

Houses of Parliament, London

The Grand Committee Room, Westminster Hall

The Grand Committee Room, Westminster Hall

The Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR) held an event on 29th January with over fifty delegates, including parliamentarians, to discuss the transition to superfast broadband and 4G/LTE services in the UK.[1, 2] The evening featured a distinguished panel of six representatives from across industry, civil society and government, and was moderated by Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at the Telegraph.[3] PICTFOR Co-Chairs Chi Onwurah MP and Stephen Mosley MP presided over the evening’s proceedings.

The panel of speakers.

The evening’s panel of speakers.

Whilst there was clear agreement that faster and more ubiquitous digital infrastructure had become absolutely essential, clear challenges remained to universally deliver the economic and social benefits of broadband. Panellists and audience members also debated what types of policy and regulatory reforms were necessary to build the best possible broadband for the future.

Super-fast enough?

Chair Chi Onwurah MP outlined the current shape of fixed broadband policy and noted that the mobile spectrum auction was currently underway. Ms Onwurah reported that a current Ofcom study showed that under current trends, demand for mobile data would grow eighty-fold by 2030.

Sean Williams, Group Director of Strategy at BT, argued that the UK had very low broadband prices, high levels of connectivity and good speeds by international comparison. This included superfast fibre networks, for which BT had become Europe’s largest investor. Mr Williams anticipated that fibre broadband would be available to two-thirds of UK premises by spring 2014 and 90% of UK premises by 2017. Dan Perlet, Head of Corporate and Financial Affairs at EE, noted that EE was delivering the UK’s first mobile 4G services and that the UK had trebled its mobile browsing data consumption since 2010.

L to R: Chi Onwurah MP, Sean Williams, Paul Morris

L to R: Chi Onwurah MP, Sean Williams, Paul Morris

Paul Morris, Head of Government Affairs at Vodafone, added that unlike the analogue world, the digital age meant information was neither scarce nor dependent on others for delivery. As a result, the amount of data demanded and consumed would continue to skyrocket. Rory Stewart MP, Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and the Border, echoed how 4G services in Cumbria have seen incredible data demand by consumers.

By contrast, Barry Forde, CEO of community enterprise Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), and Matthew Hare, CEO of Gigaclear, shared concerns that there remained a need for the UK to improve its broadband speeds considerably. Mr Forde also noted the difference between fibre-to-the-cabinet solutions and faster fibre-to-the-premises arrangements that shed older, slower copper wire requirements entirely.

The challenge of competition

Panellists also debated the challenges around broadband infrastructure competition. Mr Williams’ view was that infrastructure competition was important, however some areas of the UK did not support any investment, let alone competitive investment, without state aid. He added that the relationship between Openreach and BT retail allowed greater risk to be taken on fibre deployment.

However, Mr Forde suggested that the BDUK process for allocating £530 million in investment had been badly flawed and was granting a monopoly of fibre in the last third. He maintained that superfast, if defined by fibre-to-the-cabinet, was still too slow to be practical for homes and businesses even in the near future.

L to R: Matthew Hare, Rory Stewart MP, Matt Warman

L to R: Matthew Hare, Rory Stewart MP, Matt Warman

Mr Hare, whose company Gigaclear provides 8 Gbps and faster symmetrical fibre networks to communities, contended that whilst alternative arrangements might be workable in very rural parts of the UK, in other areas additional infrastructure might well threaten the current competitive market. Mr Stewart summed up the difficulty of policy making by saying that infrastructure competition was a very difficult issue to resolve.

Planning and access

Panellists agreed on the need for a renewed look at the UK’s regulatory model, which Mr Morris said dated from the 1980s. Although improvements in connectivity and planning could be expected this year, Mr Perlet pointed to the need for revisions to the Electronic Communications Code in order to enable better access to sites. The Law Commission is currently reviewing this.

Alun Cairns MP

Alun Cairns MP

Mr Williams noted that issues surrounding wayleaves, traffic management and collaboration with energy providers to electrify cabinets in a timely manner had hindered BT’s efforts to roll-out superfast broadband. Alun Cairns MP noted that access to Network Rail ducts and land could enable improved broadband services. Mr Forde said there was an uneven playing field, where large operators could do things that smaller community groups could not.

Benefits for all

One part of the UK Government’s current ambition – to provide universal broadband access with a speed of at least 2Mbps by 2015 – was already viewed as an antiquated standard. Faster speeds were necessary to facilitate some of the major benefits of broadband, such as work from home, telemedicine, e-learning and e-commerce.

Helen Goodman MP

Helen Goodman MP

Helen Goodman MP queried what was being done to help get online the 10 million British people who did not use computers. Panellists shared Ms Goodman’s concern over the ‘digital divide’. However, they were hopeful that through a combination of easier-to-use mobile tablets, better connectivity, third-sector and corporate initiatives to inspire non-users and other innovative projects that headway could be made in this important area.

 

Notes:

1. PICTFOR is the leading all-party group in the Houses of Parliament for the technology sector, with origins dating back to 1981. Operating under official parliamentary rules, membership includes MPs, Peers, technology companies, consumer groups and academic institutions in the United Kingdom. More information may be found online at pictfor.org.uk.

2. Parliamentarians who attended: Stephen Timms MP, Helen Goodman MP, Eric Ollerenshaw MP, Baroness Fritchie, Lord Clement-Jones, Chi Onwurah MP, Stephen Mosley MP and Rory Stewart MP.

3. The evening’s panellists: Dan Perlet, Head of Corporate and Financial Affairs, EE; Sean Williams, Group Director of Strategy, BT; Paul Morris, Head of Government Affairs, Vodafone; Barry Forde, CEO, Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN); Matthew Hare, CEO, Gigaclear; and Rory Stewart MP, Conservative Member for Penrith and the Border.

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