Superfast broadband: are you playing hard to get?

By Barney Lane, Colt Head of Regulation

Why is it that the UK can’t seem to live in holy matrimony with superfast broadband? We (the networks) have done the dutiful thing; we’ve been adaptable to the demands for business connectivity, we’ve been open to embracing it into our homes and even convinced the government to support us financially with a connectivity scheme aimed at SMEs. And yet, for some reason it doesn’t seem ready to commit.

Well, that isn’t entirely true – London has seen the greatest extent of alternative infrastructure investment and this gives the capital’s businesses access to certain services that are not available in other parts of the UK. Specifically in the business services sector, our pioneering role in introducing carrier-grade Ethernet in the City of London was one of the factors that led to the UK becoming a global leader in the wide-area Ethernet connectivity market.

So what’s the issue beyond London?

Businesses demand fast, reliable and secure connections. Superfast broadband is a recognised as a key economic driver. So much so, that the UK government is offering SMEs across the country vouchers up to £3,000 to help with the installation costs. But many businesses still struggle to find a suitable broadband partner.

The UK’s current regulatory framework is failing to create innovation and competition at the right level. This puts the UK’s competitiveness at risk in the global digital economy. We are looking to Ofcom, the UK’s independent regulator, to guide us through and find examples of best practice in our neighbouring countries.

One way in which Ofcom regulates the market is to continuously review vertical segments as well as the market as a whole. Its Business Connectivity Review is set to conclude in 2016, setting the ground rules for how connectivity is going to be delivered to UK businesses.

At the moment, the regulation is as such that network service providers, such as Colt, are unable to access any part of the incumbent’s passive infrastructure. The result of this is it is very difficult for networks to expand outside London. Homes and businesses consequently have very limited options when choosing a connectivity provider, and are often pressured into an unhappy marriage.

The UK is often described as a ‘nation of small businesses’, but the current framework effectively means that a large part of the UK economy isn’t feeling the love and isn’t being serviced as it should.

Sealing the deal

In order for businesses to make the most of the myriad of emerging connected technologies and the digital economy, we need to see fundamental changes in the UK’s telecoms regulatory framework.

We have already seen some positive signs this year as Ofcom recently announced its decision to open up access to dark fibre network to any network service provider, an important step in the right direction. This will help spur innovation and incentivise connectivity providers to roll out new services. But more importantly, this will help ‘seal the deal’ for businesses across the country, ensuring the UK is able to grab its share of the estimated $1.36tn digital economy of the future.

The changes in dark fibre regulation will have the greatest benefits beyond large cities – where companies and businesses are relatively well serviced with regards to their superfast broadband needs. If we look at the businesses around the M4 corridor for example, some of the UK’s largest technology vendors don’t have the network service they need to be able to boost engagement and drive growth.

Furthermore, the innovative side of the UK economy; for example, the start-ups that are based in Cambridge and peripheral areas of major cities don’t have the service they require. Whilst the UK market is generally very sound, the support of these nimble and exciting businesses should be paramount as the government and regulators adapt the marketplace.

Do the French really make better lovers?

If we look to the rest of Europe – it’s the French that are really leading the way with regards to embracing the change that I feel is needed in the UK. While the UK has dawdled, the French have been more decisive in adapting their regulatory model to the fibre world.

If I was to use an analogy to explain the difference between our nations – it’s as though, in the UK, we have been told that people can only drive Fords outside of large cities, and whilst there are varying models, these don’t necessarily match everyone’s price point or needs. What the networks in France are allowed to do, is not just customise a Ford by lowering the chassis or adding an extra exhaust, but completely change the look and feel of the car – to convert it into a Range Rover or a Mini. Therefore the UK is lagging behind on true business connectivity.

It’s not the case that there isn’t superfast broadband available to everyone in the UK, it just needs to be opened up further; for regulation to be passed that enables alternative network services to create broadband offerings that better address business requirements. That will mean businesses can choose the partner they like and live happily ever after.

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