Blog Type, IPT Blog, Industry Sector, Digital | February 2016

Need for Speed: Connectivity and Infrastructure

A reliable internet connection is a key part of what makes a business successful. However, there has recently been an emphasis on having a fast and reliable internet connection to meet the UK’s vision for a ‘hi-tech high-street’. With over 40,000 SMEs having already taken advantage of the Government’s Broadband Connection Voucher Scheme, there is clearly a reliance on the government to help SMEs, particularly in rural areas, to get connected. The discussion was centred on three key themes; speed, coverage and take-up.

Speed

From a parliamentary perspective, the biggest issue with speed is the staggered nature of constituents receiving upgrades. When constituents become aware of their neighbour having been upgraded, complaints sent to the Parliamentarian become ever more vociferous. Broadband providers are rolling out greater speeds of broadband and the UK does keep pace with the underlying speed. Admittedly, the UK has been a bit slow in taking up 4G, but this roll out has picked up pace and the UK now has one of the best 4G networks in the world. The Access Broadband Cymru scheme encourages individuals to claim vouchers to work on improving broadband access whether at home or in the workplace. The better the speed that is achieved a more valuable voucher can be claimed. This scheme is technology neutral and makes a strong investment case, which is a stark contrast to England’s focus on fixed broadband in urban areas. This has led to newer technologies being tried out and less of an emphasis on fibre optics. This scheme has proved particularly popular for events where a short term fix is needed, however it has led to a more piecemeal approach to investment, rather than the comprehensive approach usually adopted by Westminster.

Connectivity

Secure broadband coverage is currently being rolled out to 90% of the UK, with a focus on reaching the most remote corners of the country. It may be perceived that this is a wasted opportunity, and we should be aiming to provide the whole of the UK with reliable broadband.

There is some debate on where the 90% should cover. Should the 90% include train routes so people can be productive on their travels or remote areas of the countryside primarily used as a route for walkers? Conversely should all roads be covered, is there scope to allow cars to the carriers of broadband?

A second issue concerning connectivity are mobile phones themselves. Connectivity is no longer a priority for producers and so some phones have significantly worse coverage. It was suggested that the regulator should produce a list of handsets ranking them based on coverage, driving competition from providers and allowing consumers to make a more informed choice, especially those who are in areas that have a weaker signal. Connectivity is a complex issue and if it is better understood subsequent policies will be of a higher standard and reach those areas in need far more effectively. The Emergency Service Network, once a comprehensive network, was highlighted as an area that needs to be improved as decision makers no longer have sufficient confidence in its coverage.

Take up

The use of mobile and smart phones has drastically increased the number of people that are getting ‘online’. It was suggested that broadband could be viewed as a utility (akin to water, electricity and gas) as the current population is so heavily dependent on the service. This was further highlighted as some suppliers receive government subsidies. If this is the case is there really an excuse to not cover all? It was also suggested that the public need to be educated on the best way to utilise the technology that is out there.

The Way Forward

It was widely agreed that broadband providers should not have a sweetheart deal with parliamentarians and they should be pressed to provide some kind of social responsibility as they are making a deal for the nation. It was suggested that the government should not bully the providers into political gains which occurred prior to the election, especially when this can undermine confidence in the relationship. On occasions where there is intervention it should be technology neutral, not prioritising mobile or fixed broadband. However, it is believed by suppliers, that competition between them is the best way to drive the market to improve. There are some areas of regulation that need updating, such as planning regulations and mobile mast regulation. Some of the improvements to connectivity will require new approaches. Germany has a system of using mobile broadband to boost fixed broadband signal, and this is particularly useful for those that are a long way from the exchange as the signal weakens over distance.

This blog was written following an IPT event Need for Speed: Connectivity and Infrastructure. With thanks to guest speakers: Matt Warman MP, Science and Technology Select Committee, House of Commons; and Kip Meek, Director of Public Policy, EE.

Words by Catherine Hunter.