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!