The broadband baseline failure in the Digital Economy Act will cost the UK dearly

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood May 4, 2017
Summary:
More ominous Digital Economy Act aftershocks - this time, it’s the hand waving around the legal minimum connectivity ‘Global Britain’ can soon enjoy that rankles.

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Matt Hancock

A House of Lords amendment to the just-passed Digital Economy Bill for a legal national broadband speed requirement was rejected by the government. If passed, that would have meant a Universal Service Obligation (USO) of 30 megabits per second (Mbps), an idea first tabled by Lord Mendelsohn two years ago.

But according to Digital Minister Matt Hancock, no-one really wants that much connectivity anyway. Hancock told the House of Commons that there was insufficient evidence of market demand for broadband that fast:

We are not in a position of a substantial majority having taken up super fast broadband.

This presumes of course that the majority of us have been offered super fast broadband in the first place, but that's the BT party line, isn't it, so it must be true...mustn't it?

But look to the words of Shadow Digital Minister, Labour's Louise Haigh, who noted:

Just 59% of rural Britain has access to super fast speeds, while an utterly shocking 40% of people in rural hamlets do not have access to even basic broadband. In my city of Sheffield, super fast access is by no means universal. In fact, we have the poorest availability of any major city in the UK.

Haigh also mischievously pointed out to Hancock:

I note that the Minister’s constituency has fallen down the rankings for super fast availability during his tenure in his post, so he will be particularly keen to tackle this issue.

But he didn't seem to be. Instead of sticking with more ambitious plans, the government proposed an “amendment in lieu” that requires any broadband USO to set a download speed of at least 10 Mbps, as well as requiring regulator Ofcom to review the minimum download speed in the broadband USO once super fast take-up is 75%.

Result of all this - the UK's USO is a third of what Mendelsohn and the House of Lords wanted.

Digital life after Brexit

Let's put that into global context as the UK sets out its national stall on the global stage and activates Empire 2.0, or whatever our latest ‘Global Britain’ strategy is for post-Brexit.

Akamai - which knows about these thing as it runs the pipes - recently told us that the global broadband average is 7Mbps. But highest average connection speed is South Korea, at more like 26.1 – a country where 34% of consumers are happy to pay for 25Mbps level connectivity.

Rounding out the top ten are European Economic Area  - and potential Brexit exemplar -  Norway (23.6), Sweden (22.8), Hong Kong (21.9) and three other EU countries (Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands). The Dutch enjoy average peaks of 17.6, already nearly twice our new 10Mbps baseline, while the firm says 10% of unique IPv4 addresses connect to Akamai at average connection speeds of at least 25 Mbps, a 19% increase compared with the previous quarter in 2016.

You’re dying to know, so I’ll tell you - the United Kingdom’s average fixed line broadband download speed is 15Mbps, according to slightly earlier (Q2 2016) Akamai data – putting us at 20th in the world league broadband table.

In other words, four EU and one EEA country are already streets ahead of us in the most basic requirement of a truly digital economy – the ability to communicate, share data and collaborate at industrial speeds so as to make, you know – industrial stuff for the world to buy.

For comparison, Ofcom’s last published data on this, from this month, showed 89% of us could theoretically receive super fast download speeds of 30Mbps or higher, and that the average actual fixed broadband download speed delivered to UK homes is improving, increasing by 25% to 36.2Mbps in the year to November 2016. But it noted:

Fixed broadband speeds are slow for a significant number of [UK] consumers and, even where available, the nature of the technologies used to deliver superfast fixed broadband means that performance is not consistent across all parts of the country.

That was a point alluded to by SNP MP Calum Kerr during the Digital Economy Bill final debate:

In areas in my constituency such as Oxnam, Bonchester Bridge and the Ettrick valley, 10 megabits would be a huge step forward, as people there have 5 or 12 kilobits or 1 megabit. Ten megabits would be welcome, but it will be overtaken in Scotland by the Scottish Government’s commitment to 30 megabits...In Scotland, the Scottish Government have committed to 30 megabits to 100% of the population over the current Scottish Parliament.

Let us look at what will happen with the Government’s offer here and at the trigger mechanism of a 75% subscription rate. In 2016, only 31% of people were getting 30 megabits; in 2015, it was only 27%. How long is a constituent in England, Wales or Northern Ireland going to have to wait before the USO catches up and gets to 75%?

What is Ofcom for?

Ofcom may well say that the availability of ultrafast services (offering actual download speeds of 300Mbps or higher) remains “low” and that it is “working to improve the availability and quality of fixed broadband services”.

But what is it actually doing about it?

Because the secondary result of all that is horribly clear. While taking some minor damage and having to shoulder one or two additional burdens, BT has basically been given a free pass by the government here.

That’s because by avoiding any more onerous broadband baseline, the company may not quite got away with connectivity murder – but it’s certainly been very, very fortunate.

Astonishing as this is to write, 35 years after this former bloated state monopoly was privatised, BT effectively remains the state monopoly UK tech infrastructure supplier. Years of regulation and lots of Ofcom this and Ofcom that, but the reality is that no other company has been able to prize BT's cold dead fingers off the national comms asset.

Yes, it takes the odd hit – it’s just had to admit defeat in its five-year long attempt to wriggle out of a 2012 ruling for over-charging competitors, like the then Cable & Wireless for Ethernet services between 2006 and 2011, for example.

But really, it’s been extracting the proverbial from British businesses and consumers for decades, and there’s nothing in this legislation that is going to do anything other than  make it even easier to carry on regardless.

My take

Hancock’s casual dismissal of the higher USO commitment was part of the notorious ‘wash up’ process, whereby governments get to race thorough legislation prior to Parliament being dissolved. Basically, the government gets to squash debate time to zero and just get someone to get up and rattle through to dot the i-s and cross the t-s, as Hancock did last week so breezily.

As a result, the bad Bill is now a bad Act – law.

Will we all regret the speed with which these amendments were bashed away to get it on the statute book?

Just look at what Hancock himself said the Bill covered:

To extend digital connectivity, protect children from online pornography and better deliver Government services.

Doesn’t that strike anyone else as quite a lot to try and cover in precisely one Act of Parliament?

Why was it all lumped together like this?

Has no-one wondered, system development wise, that a change in one module is risky enough, but changes in multiple modules that may have hidden connections might not cause major bugs and unforeseen side effects to ripple through?

Earlier this week we reported major concerns on caution and sage advice on data privacy in the Bill being ignored. Quite enough civil liberties people – from colourful porn artists to patient groups – have serious worries about that.

But now we have this, too – a casual, sloppy shrug off of a useful and ambitious national target.

If we’d set the bar high for a national USO, would it really have, in Hancock’s words, been all that bad for the industry (i.e. BT) to have run the risk of

legal challenge and the delay that that would cause.

Think about that - the underlying message here is that the UK as a digital nation is essentially held to ransom by providers who don't want to have to meet higher service targets and might take legal action to get out of that. That's one healthy digital economy environment we're building there! And the government's digital ministers appear to think this is acceptable?

Mind, this is a digital minister who's tweeted out press releases directly from the BT Press Room in the past, so I'm not entirely sure why I'm surprised :

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A big opportunity has been missed here, with far too much of a feeling it was done to let BT off for my liking.

Ofcom must exercise the powers the government says it’s given it to keep raising the bar here.

That, or we maybe need to ask the Finns and South Koreans very nicely about how to do this stuff properly. Or perhaps even look closer to home and to Scotland's 30 Mbps targets.

As the SNP's Kerr noted, the USO coming out of the Digital Economy Act could be  "a really ambitious measure to close the digital divide or simply a safety net".

Shamefully, but sadly not surprisingly, Hancock and his colleagues chose the latter route of least resistance.

One last valid point from Kerr:

I do not accept the Government’s argument that it was not possible to be more ambitious because of the mechanism itself. If that truly is the case, we are perhaps choosing the wrong mechanism.

Quite.

 

Disclosure: Additional reporting by Stuart Lauchlan, who edited this article on a BT internet connection in the city centre of Brighton which is currently running at 1.8 Mbps download, less than the 'guaranteed' minimum speed.

This has been reported to BT. Several times. 

BT doesn't care.