At Delany & Co we spend our time thinking and blogging about the innovative products and services that are emerging all around us – in fintech, in communications, in the sharing economy – and working with those innovators to find answers to the policy and regulatory questions they are posing.
I was lucky to attend a conference on next generation broadband last week that reminded me not only that innovation is taking place right across the value chain – and not just at the consumer end – but that without entrepreneurs and larger companies investing and innovating in connectivity, none of the apps and web-based services we are increasingly taking for granted, would be possible.
Transform Digital was a conference run by INCA – the UK organisation representing the non-incumbent builders and operators of next generation digital networks – and it’s fair to say that there was a tangible buzz in the room about the scale of change taking place in the industry.
Some are innovating by necessity: community ventures and SMEs using a mix of platforms – satellite, fixed wireless, fibre and the existing copper network – to ensure that the hard to reach communities that have proven commercially uninteresting to the incumbent BT can receive the most basic levels of broadband – what is known as Universal Broadband at 2mbit/s.
Other companies are tearing up the rule book altogether, having decided that rather than trying to eek out greater and greater speeds from BT’s old copper lines, they should just build their own fibre networks from scratch – networks which are capable not just of delivering superfast broadband (30mbit/s) but ultrafast broadband of 1 gigabit (1000mbit/s) speeds and beyond. The up front capital expenditure needed to build these networks is huge, but such is their – and importantly their investors’ – belief in the transformational potential of infinite connectivity both for individuals and communities, that they are putting their money where their mouth is and digging trenches in the ground.
CityFibre, for example, specialises in working with municipalities across the UK to create Gigabit Cities, by laying brand new fibre networks. York, Coventry, Aberdeen and Peterborough are already Gigabit Cities. Edinburgh has just signed up to become one too – those cities’ leaders having understood that while we may not yet be able conceive how we will use 1 gigabit speeds, future proofing their digital infrastructure is likely to be as important to the prospects of those communities as the arrival of the railways were in the 19th century.
Gigaclear works not in cities but in rural communities – often those that have traditionally been viewed as commercially unviable for the larger players. They have 19 rural gigabit fibre networks already live and 23 more in construction in Oxfordshire, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Rutland and Northamptonshire. Hyperoptic works with both new-build and retrofit multi-dwelling buildings to bake ultrafast broadband into the very fabric of buildings.
Against this backdrop of industry developments and a surge in demand for fast and reliable connectivity from consumers, a key window of opportunity has opened up in policy terms.
Back in March, the UK regulator Ofcom announced its first Strategic Review of Digital Communications in 10 years, with the first round of consultations closing later this month. Two weeks ago the European Commission also announced that it would be reviewing Europe’s future broadband needs and its current Telecoms Framework. Together these represent a once in a decade chance to decide the policy and regulatory landscape that shapes our broadband future.
If we consider that the last time Ofcom undertook a big picture review of the digital networks Netflix didn’t exist, there was no such thing as an iPhone, and that most of us were backing up our files on an external drive instead of storing them in the Cloud, the challenge of updating the current regulatory framework not just for today but tomorrow is clear. Away from the technical details about how to regulate ducts and dark fibre, the big questions at the heart of the reviews are how to create a competitive market that incentivises the large scale investments that are needed with minimum public subsidy, and how to ensure that “the final 5%” – those locations where the market is unlikely to want to serve on pure commercial grounds – don’t get left behind.
Let’s hope for the benefit of all citizens and consumers who are increasingly viewing connectivity as just another essential utility, like running water, that the reviews get it right.