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Yes Minister 2010, Broadband Growth, and Digital Britain

Over the last year or two it has been interesting to watch updated episodes of the BBC TV series Yes Minister playing out in front of my very eyes.

First of all it was the 2Meg Universal Service Obligation. You can picture civil servants in BIS (Dept of Business Innovation and Skills) running around in panic wondering at how they were going to make the “obligatory” bit happen. That one soon evolved to Universal Service Commitment which apparently in politicospeak means “we say 2Megs but actually it could be anything and between me and you is a worthless statement”. Got out of that then!

The came the Digital Economy Act hot potato that was thrown over the fence to Ofcom one evening with instructions to get it sorted out by the morning.

Now, with new masters settling in to the Whitehall roost, it’s a privilege to be one of the page turners and to read out to you the next hilarious chapter.

This is the one entitled “Britain will have the best superfast broadband network in europe by 2015” (actually by the end of this parliament so it could be sooner – fingers crossed?:x).

Camera pans to BIS offices where “the team” rushes round to Sir Humphrey’s office with the exciting news. “OMG” says the team as one voice, “how are we going to deliver this one?”.

“Fear not” replies the sagacious one, eyebrows only slightly raised and the merest of furrows on his brow. “This calls for a consultation :))”.

So we now have an exercise to determine how we go about measuring what it means to have the “best superfast broadband network in Europe”. It isn’t simply all about speed we are told. A scorecard needs to be developed that takes into consideration all the factors that make up best in breed for broadband – quality, latency? etc? etc?!

Gimme a break!!!!!

It is of course too early, we are told, to know what the elements of this scorecard are going to be. This is, really, an outrageous cop out designed to steer political masters through parliamentary minefields to some distant safe haven in the House of Lords/boardroom of a major plc/other (tick all that apply).

This all came out in a speech given yesterday by Head of Broadband Delivery UK, Robert Sullivan, at the Westminster eForum on 21st Century Broadband.

Later Liv Garfield, BT’s director of strategy and therefore herself no political slouch, told us that with current progress by BT’s reckoning the UK would actually be second in the European rankings by 2015, behind Germany.

The caveat here was that smaller countries such as Finland that have promised 100% coverage of 100Meg fibre by 2015 did not count. So actually we will be at least third.

Now to be honest I don’t have a gripe with any of this. We are all used to the flag waving and bluster across the floor of the House of Commons.

The biggest issue is what we might be doing to address the broadband impoverished of our nation. This is important in the light of information from the ITU that says every 10% improvement in broadband penetration leads to 1.3% increase in GDP.

Recognising this type of input the Australian government has outlined a plan to spend in the region of £26Bn (A$43Bn)  on providing 100Mbps to 93% of Australians. Before you get excited they are also looking for 49% private finance involvement in the plan and no one has yet stepped up to the plate. This should not come as a surprise as in the UK BT themselves have stated that a 50/50 subsidy in such a roll out would still not result in a viable business plan.

There is another point to be made in building up to a conclusion here.  At the conference yesterday a major portion of the agenda was given over to drivers for high speed broadband growth.  We saw that the number of internet connected devices will increase from 1Bn in 2010 to 10Bn in 2020. Households will have multiple demands on the bandwidth. In fact I see this today – with 4 kids and a wife that use the internet almost as heavily as me – so perhaps 2020 is too conservative a date.

Notwithsanding that you only need two users to be watching HD streams now to be needing up to 20Mbps and we have 3D HD on the horizon. The average speeds of today are not going to cut it in a very short few years.

Now having heard all about how 100Megs as a minimum is going to be essential I asked the conference panellists whether we should call on the government to drop the notion of a 2Meg USC in favour of a 100Megs. Unfortunately for the digitally deprived  the overwhelming responses toe’d the government 2Meg line on the basis of affordability.

It is clear to me that inhabitants of the “final third” very much have to take the future into their own hands because if they leave it to someone else many of them will end up with little more than dial up. Enough to browse the DEFRA website this may be but not good enough to bring them into the real world.

As far as scorecards and Britain’s Broadband competitiveness are concerned it is simple. Average speed is an adequate benchmark to use especially as to to get to the top of the League Table is going to involve lots of fibre. Trying to make out that there is a relevant complex formula is just tosh. Come on Sir Humphrey! Come on everyone!

Trefor Davies

By Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of, writer, poet,

16 replies on “Yes Minister 2010, Broadband Growth, and Digital Britain”

Well that is a good question. Everyone went away thinking what a great morning’s discussion 🙂

Reality is that people have to go back to their communities and sort it out themselves. I did take copious notes which I very conveniently left at home. I’m sure I’ll have more to say but not today as I am taking the family to watch the ceremonial burning of an erstwhile dissenter.

Good read, I have a 6Mbps connection shared between 4 very active internet users, when just 2 of us are on the internet it can be quite tough, when they start watching online demand, and their online games, our internet is unusable 🙁

I hope they do decide to do 100Mbps, even the french are spending £570m a year until 2025, while we are spending £106m a year until 2015 (£530m), big difference!

Tref, so do you think the government should pay for 100% FTTP rollout and why? If the government did how would it benefit them, would they get anything in return?

No I don’t think we have that luxury at the moment unfortunately even though the evidence suggests that there would be a national payback. The alternative could somehow be for the government to make it easier for people to get fibre into their communities – aka digital village pump – and then leave the rest up to the community.

This might well be by reviewing the rating situation for such fibre initiatives and possibly helping with the installation costs. This could well be a better use of the BBC’s £530million than spending it on Cornwall style projects (for example).

This doesn’t preclude the community from sourcing funds from wherever they can get it.

I also think that whilst everyone is talking about fibre rates being a problem we need to present the actual evidence – show a real example of a quote that would be significantly reduced if fibre rates were removed.

I doubt they will remove the fibre tax 🙁 how much money do they make from the fibre tax?

They could at least pay the rest of the money needed for FTTC (£3bn).

Here’s a dirty idea from the mud-slinging division :

What if the discount BT gets on its fiber (aka fibre) taxes were publicized as a government subsidy ?

That would put HMGovt. in violation of one or more EU laws / regulations. I’ve read in various places that the smaller owners of fiber optic cables get taxed at rates several times what BT is assessed. Has somebody done the numbers for a level playing / paying field ? A link to a reliable report would be appreciated.

The problem is that BT has it’s rateable value assessed as a whole business rather than against individual kms of fibre runs. Also the BT line is that it would be far too complicated to come up with the data required to level the playing field. Trouble is that the likes of VOA fall for this.

So your lead telco, BT, is like the U.S.’s lead telco (SBC/AT+T) – a poorly whitewashed black knight.

There is a simple way of tracking BT’s installed fiber :
1) Total all of their fiber cable purchases (broken down by type + pairs);
2) Subtract what is sitting in their warehouses / yards; and
3) Subtract what has been scrapped.
This should give a figure that is fairly close to reality. And if they cannot produce these numbers then they should be sanctioned for sloppy accounting and possibly even tax evasion.

P.S. The requisite information may also be available from their suppliers. If I worked for HMG’s revenuers I would require a list of suppliers of certain taxable goods from commercial taxpayers for use in audits.
P.P.S. [Rhetorical] How long have they been using computers for accounting purposes ? [/Rhetorical]

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