INCA (Independent Network Cooperative Association) has recently published its strategy paper “Building Gigabit Britain”
It can be downloaded at http://www.inca.coop/policy/building-gigabit-britain-report
While it has much to recommend it, it also falls short of identifying some of the underlying problems and solutions.
First the good news. The six key recommendations have merit although it is unclear how government papers actually move things forward. Setting a target of 80% coverage (and we assume actual coverage as opposed to the current BDUK version) is pretty ambitious and feels very similar to the actual coverage achieved by the current government programme. If it merely replicates that coverage it seems hardly worth it. The challenge is to deliver higher speeds to those currently receiving less than Superfast speeds and herein lies the rub. Getting Gigabit speeds into the rural space is a major challenge.
The strategy identifies Fibre to the Premise as the goal, or dream. This will be very difficult in the final 20% and much easier in Urban areas, which are already better served. The report also underplays the role of Virgin and their likely coverage model for FTTP which we expect to be much higher than suggested
While we completely endorse a review of business rates for fibre, a stronger line on advertising via the ASA and the launch of a Broadband Investment Fund these don’t address some of the weaknesses of the current marketplace.
The number of Altnets who have the balance sheet or business credibility to attract significant funding is extremely limited. This will not only affect investors willingness to part with equity funds but may drive an over reliance on debt based models, where there may be some strain on ROI cycles. This is especially true in the wireless space. Financial credibility will be key in winning public sector support and the creation of anchor tenancies on new (or re-purposed) networks
Wireless is an important bridge from the “core” fibre network to the more remote subscriber. As most actual device level connectivity is now wireless anyway there is little resistance to this as a medium and a blurring of the “line” between fixed and mobile connectivity.
The report plays down the role of public investment, no doubt born out of understandable frustration with the eventual delivery model for the Superfast scheme. The issue here is really one of expertise. If Government would but engage in listening beyond BT and a couple of other sources, we might end up with a meaningful partnership model. Of course, Brexit throws up an interesting conundrum. Much of the money that underpinned current Government Broadband funding was of EU origin but with it came a requirement to fulfil EU State Aid rules. If we leave, this may have the unexpected effect of loosening some of these shackles. Of course, public funding wold probably have to be made available openly, including to BT and that requires something of a reversal of strategy, again raising the spectre of financial credibility. The truth seems to be that BT does not have a strategy for the final 20%. However, the chances of government accepting any responsibility for having made a mistake with the Superfast scheme and digging into shallower pockets for even more funds seems unlikely. And FTTP might cost £25bn.
As far as technical considerations go, there are a couple of quick points to consider. How the figure of 350m for a sub loop length being typical is arrived at is a bit of a mystery. Sounds like something dreamt up near Ipswich to answer a political enquiry. In rural areas average loop lengths are significantly higher making G.Fast and any other improvements on copper based technologies the law of diminishing returns. And Ducts and Poles Access is like chasing a will o’ the wisp. Openreach are probably happy to entertain this fantasy as its a complete distraction from anything meaningful.
Finally the report misses one piece of good news. The SuperFast roll out via FTTC has one overriding benefit for Altnets. It drives the core fibre network closer to the subscriber, thereby reducing delivery costs for FTTP and raises expectations with subscribers which it then fails to deliver.
Many an empire is built on unmet expectations