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Friday, 30 September 2011

Cowboys and Aliens at Surrey Superfast Rural Broadband Debate

Haslemere Hall, the venue for
today's local talkfest
"Cowboys and Aliens" said the sign above the door of Haslemere Hall, venue for today's Surrey Superfast Broadband seminar with Surrey County Council and our MP, Jeremy Hunt, who just happens also to be Secretary of State for the department responsible for the UK's broadband infrastructure.

The cowboys? Contenders are Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the government department who allocated only £1.5m to Surrey (there are far more worthy countys, apparently) and the big ISPs, who seem incapable of delivering broadband projects at an affordable rate (considering they will take the mix of public money from Surrey/BDUK for laying the cables, yet still make money leasing the lines and connectivity back to customers).
Jeremy Hunt MP (speaking) with Abigail Harrison (Digital Surrey),
Andrew Povey (Surrey CC) and Robert Knowles (Waverley BC)

And Ofcom. Or more precisely, the big mobile networks; who, according to Jeremy Hunt, are very litigious.  It seems the big corporations currently making a buck from our soon-to-be obsolete mobile phone network have a vested interest in delaying the roll-out of the next generation system which should see rural mobile broadband coverage rates significantly increase, with real-world download speeds of 14Mbps with a following wind.

Why? Because 4G is data centric, and recent market studies consistently show profits from data have plummeted across all mobile network operators.  The incumbents see data as a low-profit offering.

Data-centric providers like Three see data as an opportunity and are actively lobbying to be allowed to roll out services faster and wider than Ofcom's current unambitious plans. The likes of O2 and Vodafone would ideally like to cling on to their existing revenues for as long as possible.  But really this is a mess that the government must solve, rather than making excuses.  Make it happen - we're already years behind Korea, Sweden, Germany and the US - to name just four.

And the Aliens? Surrey Country Council, who seem in denial that the sums don't seem to stack up whilst their plans weren't made clear to the audience today.  Aliens to the cut-throat digital world, where a big ISP will chomp through the available funding.  BDUK are providing £1.5m and us, the Surrey taxpayers, are topping this up to £5m a year over I don't know how many years.

And yet we're told by Andrew Povey that Surrey will get 100% superfast broadband coverage by 2013. Without detail on the procurement strategy - not provided - I can't see how this will be achieved.  It costs close to a million to cable-up one very small village. Running cable to one isolated rural farm can eat through tens of thousands of pounds in wayleave charges alone (fixed rates paid to landowners for allowing cables to run under their land, and it can take considerable time to obtain landowner consent).

What were we told today? We need to test the market and see what's out there, apparently.

No specifics or detailed analysis on what technologies would best suit Surrey, given Surrey's geography and population dispersal. Isolated rural farms or compact isolated villages, the latter of which may utilise a WIMAX backhaul with e.g. local WiFi connectivity to householders.

I've heard these issues debated in several other local broadband debates. Maybe the time for debate is over, but I heard nothing from Surrey County Council today to give me confidence they even appreciate the scale of the challenge.

What there is evidence of, it seems, is a team of four staff - presumably full time - preparing for this tender.  I hope the overhead in securing a good deal does not come at too high a price, especially with the typical council bureaucracy and fiefdoms - with mention of coordination through Surrey Strategic Partnership and the possible involvement of Surrey Connects (a local enterprise partnership which was refused official LEP status on at least one occasion).  Will time and money disappear once again into the black hole still pulling in more than its fair share of government IT projects.

I don't want to be too hard on Surrey. I want them to achieve their aim - 100% superfast broadband access.  But it's a big ask - a really big ask.  There's a danger a lot of the allocated money will be lost on consultants, studies, procurement plans, legal fees etc.

My strong impression is that Surrey County Council want to be seen to be providing something for the community. Noble, but maybe an obsolete paternal approach.

A community-led multi-stakeholder approach would see Surrey businesses - providing a good turnover in the region of £25bn per year - forming alliances with ISPs on their terms, to get the connectivity they need, and then use the public money to hook-up the private households to the infrastructure business created.  This approach is how the internet came into existence in the first place. The internet is not a network but a multitude of interconnected autonomous networks.

Additionally, local landowners might feel less motivated to charge a locally-run project the wayleave due to them if the community benefits are clear and the disruption to the landowner minimal.

The role of the council would swap from being a provider to being a facilitator.  Ensuring residents' needs are met. Ensuring businesses look after the local community.  The national picture sees county councils as mere pawns in a game dominate by the big ISPs playing king over a cast of small ISPs keen to expand their role in a highly competitive market.

Ultimately, ISPs are after the money, and all councils need to approach such projects with extreme caution. It was the lack of any note of caution today that unsettled me the most. Do Surrey County Council know what they're getting in to?

A couple of thoughts from other bloggers: the Digital Village Pump from Tref, co-founder of ISP Timico; and Why Rural Broadband Should be Privately Funded in the Huffington Post UK.

@JamesFirth

1 comment:

  1. I was there but I have no idea what the point of the meeting was. Each speaker repeated the old story of why we need broadband but the lack of detail on Surrey's plans meant there was no substance.

    We did learn that five companies are tendering. I assume the tenders are top secret so we'll never know what range of options were offered. It would be helpful though if the council gave more detail on how they were going to evaluate the tenders. Or better still, used the forum to ask _us_ what we consider to be important.

    No mention was made of the PSN which I suspect has been rolled into this procurement, and I suspect many of the companies tendering are only really interested in pitching for the PSN part, the broadband access is just something on the side for them, which doesn't bode well.

    Let's hope there is a follow-up meeting with the successful bidder where they can go through in detail what they will actually be doing.

    Unless its BT of course, in which case we know what they'll be doing with the money. Very little.

    ReplyDelete

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