Adrian Wooster’s Blog

Adrian Wooster is a widely respected consultant working with INCA on the development of technical and business process standards to support the emerging patchwork quilt. We have syndicated the content of his influential and widely read blog for the convenience of INCA members and site visitors. You can view Adrian's site at http://wooster.org.uk

Back to the future – defining a broadband market

This article is a rehash of something I wrote 6-years ago – which perhaps says everything about the speed at which the telecoms market moves. I’m representing it as the need to find a sensible market which brings together service providers and network operators is becoming critical.

The broadband market is fragmenting so this we have to accept this. As this continues it will become unreasonable for service providers create multiple bilateral agreements with every network operator simply to customers wherever they are.

Something must exist which brings all these islands of connectivity together as a single, unified patchwork quilt

Market conditions

When I first wrote this paper it framed broadband as just another item sold in a marketplace. At the time, I remember thinking it looked very odd, so I replaced all the telecoms terms with widgets and suddenly it made sense – it’s the shape of the telecoms market that’s out of kilter, we’re just not used to thinking of telecoms in a free market sense.

Ofcom Strategic Review and a copper switch-off

There is growing debate about the concept of a copper switch-off, where the 19th century communications revolution makes way for a 21st century successor. And the recently announced Ofcom Strategic Review is a major opportunity to gather consensus on it.

It is certainly true that investors in telecommunications would welcome this – it would set out the terms and timescale for change, allowing them to bet on the runners.

However before we can contemplate how this might happen, policy makers and the regulator need to have a clear idea of what the new market will look like. For example, will it result in a market with many infrastructure providers, or a small clutch?

Europe needs net transparency more than net neutrality

The BBC reported today that the EU is preparing to water down their rules on net neutrality to permit some traffic shaping for unspecified services. As I discussed here recently, the structure of the European broadband market is very different to the US. On this side of the pond most people have a choice of service providers over their local infrastructure, so if your current ISP excessively fiddles with your traffic then you have the option to migrate to another.

The key in Europe is not whether traffic is messed with but whether customers know about it. What Europe really needs is net-transparency more than net neutrality.

The EU is right that some services may benefit from prioritisation, and customers may thank ISP’s that do it sensibly and in their customers interests. In the corporate world deep packet inspection and traffic shaping are important business tools – they make sure that critical real-time and online services keep performing while huge files and print jobs are spinning around their networks.

Does US net neutrality matter here?

After much acrimonious debate, the US has codified their their rules surrounding net neutrality, but does US net neutrality matter here in the UK?

There are key differences between the US and the UK and Europe which means there are good arguments that there is very little relevance but, as ever, this isn’t the full picture.

The European broadband market is very different to the US in one key way. The US market is dominated by vertically integrated network operators – your choice of network operator equates to your choice of service provider. In Europe, many major network operators offer a range of wholesale services allowing service providers to develop retail packages over other organisations physical networks – your choice of operator may influence but rarely dictates your choice of service provider.

Net neutrality became a key issue in the US because a single monolithic organisation unilaterally controlled how customers enjoyed services over the internet. If your local operator had a video streaming service, that could affect how you enjoyed commercial offerings like Netflix. And you could do very little about it.

Theme of the week – communications (not the technical kind)

On the day that Virgin Media announces a massive investment in urban broadband infrastructure, it seemed like a good time to reflect a little on what’s going on more generally in broadband – or at least in my little bit of it this week.

Cotswolds Broadband has just entered the mandatory “Alcatel period” after choosing their preferred bidder (don’t ask who – all will be revealed in good time) to help ensure that West Oxfordshire becomes the first District in the UK to have universal superfast broadband.

This is a truly innovative and exciting project with lessons for anyone engaged in rural broadband programmes – private, public or community led.

State Aid, broadband and the art of the possible

The UK’s relationship with EU State Aid rules often feels a little difficult but its a complex area where few seem to really understand the art of the possible.

Recently a group of UK cities were reported as saying that state aid rule were blocking investment in broadband in their cities while enabling it in rural areas, and I was quoted in an article suggesting the UK Government is blocking funds for broadband.

Its not my view that funds are being blocked but I do feel that understanding of what the state aid rules can permit is not widespread, and UK public bodies often seem more risk averse than some of their European colleagues; a generalisation but certainly many of the smaller, more decentralized countries struggle less with state aid than the UK does. This can result in a narrower and more cautious approach to issues like broadband.

Final 5% or Final 10% – what’s the difference?

Industry colleague John Popham highlighted an article in the Western Morning News covering comments from Devon MP Neil Parish to the BDUK Chief Executive, Chris Townsend. Much of the item wasn’t news – that people in hard to reach rural areas are severely impacted and irritated by the state their broadband.

What did catch my eye was this:

“Mr Townsend said the hardest-to-reach areas would be the focus of the third phase of the programme, with the aim to reach them by 2020 “at the very latest”. He added: “Some of these rural areas are very, very, very hard to reach.”

The first phase of the programme built on the commercial footprint to take coverage from around 70% to about 90% of the UK population. The second phase is seeking to raise this to around 95%, again starting where the previous phase left off. So the quoted third phase will be focussing on the the final 5%.

What the Ofcom broadband data tells us about West Oxfordshire

This week Ofcom released the data sitting behind their recent broadband study. The dataset contains over 1.5m postcodes from across Britain, summarizing the local broadband experience.

The file is far too big to play win in Excel but when loaded into a spatial database it becomes a fantastic resource that will take some time to properly exploit. Given last year’s data was in a similar format it means we may soon be able to build up a picture of the evolution of broadband over time as well, empirically showing the advances that the UK is making.

With the data loaded, I wanted to have a quick look to see what it might show. The map below is a snapshot of West Oxfordshire, the focus of the Cotswolds Broadband project I’m helping.

Cotswolds Broadband passes a milestone

Today Cotswolds Broadband passed something of a milestone in its long journey to ensure everyone in West Oxfordshire has access to superfast broadband – today it is launching the open procurement process to find an organisation to build and maintain their broadband infrastructure.

So what makes it different?

Firstly, the project is a community-led public-private partnership with investment from local people, external professional private investors, and public bodies. The project has so far secured £6.4m for the project with all the stakeholder groups represented – the community alongside the financial and public sectors as true investors.

In addition the state funding is only partially in the form of grants. While BDUK are making a significant grant available, West Oxfordshire District Council are lending their share with the expectation of receiving repayment with interest. The procurement will finalize the level of public subsidy but it is expected to be less than 30% of the total investment, much lower than might typically be expected for such a rural area.

A week in broadband – net neutrality, content and competition

Its been and interesting week to contrast the discussions and shifts in the broadband markets in the UK and the US.

In the US, the Net Neutrality debate is coming to a head with the FCC now considering how they might inject some additional layers of competition in an attempt to use market forces to avoid operators fiddling with customers traffic.

At the same time there are UK reports that  BT may be considering the scrapping their Wholesale division in favour of Openreach.

The timing of the latter reports couldn’t be better timed for the FCC’s deliberations.

In principle the UK has a market which creates a distinction between services and infrastructure; it is true the UK doesn’t have the scale of problems the US has with net neutrality but the UK market is certainly not in rude health.