National Infrastructure Commission questions UK progress

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has released its annual report, dampening enthusiasm around telco progress, but the industry got off lightly compared to everyone else.

Progress has been made by the Government and telcos in closing the not spots across the country, as well as accelerating the deployment of 5G, though the NIC has been quick to point to the shortfalls. Most notably, connectivity on the railway.

The risk which is at present today is a false sense of achievement. 5G is progressing quickly, though it is always important to remember the 4G rollout is not complete. In the rural communities and on roads and railway lines, connectivity is poor, irrelevant as to what the telcos or Government will tell you otherwise.

“The UK desperately needs a strategy that looks well beyond this Parliament, setting out infrastructure policy and funding up to 2050,” said Sir John Armitt, Chair of the NIC. “It must contain goals, plans to achieve them, funding to deliver those, and deadlines for delivery.”

Although it might as well be deemed an impossibility, Armitt is correct with his statement. Infrastructure strategy and investment should not be politicised, though it already has been. In making some bold and embarrassing statements, both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn made connectivity a political ping-pong ball, potentially creating a policy war which bounces back and forth across the aisles achieving very little.

That said, the work of egotistical politicians cannot be undone therefore we have to pursue the current course.

Looking at the report, the telco industry got off lightly. Government departments have been panned for the thus-far laughable attempt to improve rail connections through HS2, better the energy efficiency agenda for the electricity networks and increase house building rates to meet promises of PR hungry politicians. But the telco industry did not escape all condemnation.

Interestingly enough, the NIC suggested mobile voice and 4G data services were now available on all UK motorways, though most who have driven these routes might find some points of disagreement. But it is the rail network which has fallen woefully behind according to the report.

“Motorways now have near universal mobile coverage for both voice calls and 4G data, and work is progressing on the rest of the network,” the report states. “In contrast, progress in improving mobile connectivity on the rail network has been limited, and work appears to have stalled since government endorsed the Connected Future recommendation.”

As with every good backseat driver, the NIC has made several recommendations to improve the connectivity prospects of the UK.

  • Introduce a Digital Champion in the Department of Transport to ensure connectivity aims are being translated into actionable policy and strategy
  • Formalise a strategy to deliver increased connectivity on rail routes. This strategy should be put down on paper by December 2020
  • Force National Rail to collaborate with third parties for access for third parties to deliver a trackside connectivity network on railway land. These arrangements should be formalised by December 2020
  • Begin a competitive process for delivering mobile connectivity improvements on at least four main line routes by June 2021

Interestingly enough, despite there being many pitfalls in the progress of the telco industry in recent months and years, the report has been quite favourable. Progress is of course being made but the UK telco industry is far from perfect. Perhaps more attention will be paid to this critical industry following a new appointment at the NIC.

James Heath, currently the Director of Digital Infrastructure at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), has been announced as the new CEO of the NIC.

“Infrastructure has shot to the top of the political agenda and this role offers an unparalleled opportunity to advise government on how to ensure future investment will deliver lasting benefits to communities across the UK,” Heath said. “I will be joining a talented team and supporting a group of Commissioners whose expertise offers huge value in shaping a strategic approach to infrastructure policy.”

The NIC does have the clout to influence Government decision making and policy, and perhaps this is an effort to pay homage to the increasing importance of telecoms in every aspect of our daily lives. Heath was the man who led the Supply Chain Review process and will of course bring a lot of industry specific experience with him.

Infrastructure commission warns UK government over lacklustre ambition

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has issued a warning to the UK Government over its infrastructure ambitions, seemingly worried that Minister’s think the job is done.

“There is a real and exciting chance available to ensure the UK benefits from world-class infrastructure, particularly through the forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy – a first for this country,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt.

“We cannot afford for Ministers to take their eye off the ball. With this issue at the heart of the Industrial Strategy, I would urge the Government to adopt the recommendations from our National Infrastructure Assessment, and use this to offer industry the long-term, fully-costed infrastructure plan they need.”

While various committees and departments have been readying the red-tape with reviews, assessments and consultations, Armitt fears the job is only part finished. The National Infrastructure Commission recommends infrastructure plans for the next three decades should be in place to ensure the UK is future-proofed for the digital economy, a much longer-term ambition than has been set forward by the government currently.

With the National Infrastructure Strategy set to be published over the next couple of months, we’ll get a clearer picture of the ambitions of the Government. This document has been pitched as a playbook to guarantee the economic prosperity of the UK, though it seems the NIC is worried momentum might be lost should the plans be limited to a shorter period of time.

Fibre connectivity is one area which has been mentioned by the NIC, as while there are targets from the government and Ofcom for the mid-2020s and 2033, these are relatively broad. The next stage of the plan, once 15 million homes have been ‘fibred up’, should be to extend the infrastructure into the rural communities. Unless the Government formalises this progression to the next stage, there is of course a risk of telcos going ‘off-piste’ and serving their own interests.

This scenario is perfectly understandable and perhaps the very reason the Government has to cast an eye onto the far-distant horizon. Telcos are commercial organizations after all, favouring upgrades in areas where there is a more immediate ROI. This is what created the digital divide in the first place, and without regulation to hold the telcos accountable, they will naturally favour investments in the more densely urbanised areas.

What is worth noting is that Armitt’s comments are not supposed to be a damning indictment of the progress made thus far. Steps forward to ensure UK infrastructure is in an appropriate position have been made, though the question is whether the momentum will be continued to ensure the continued success of the UK in the global economy beyond the documented stages.

To counter Armitt’s point, formulating plans for such long periods of time can create a rigid regime which does allow for reactionary measures. Who knows what the world will look like in a couple of years’ time; any plans will have to flexible enough to allow adaptability. It is a tricky equation to balance.

For anyone in the telecommunications and telco world, this is a bit of a recurring theme. Digital communications is a hot topic right now, such is the enthusiasm created by 5G, though the political interest peaks and troughs. The same political hype ramped up ahead of 3G and 4G before dying off. Soon enough another cause to champion will emerge, though should the NIC’s recommendations be taken on board, you would hope the regulatory framework has been put in place to ensure structured progression.

New Ofcom mobile coverage report yields fresh political posturing

The UK telecoms regulator has moved the goalposts for measuring geographical coverage, in turn giving politicians the chance to look like they’re doing something.

In its Connected Nations Report 2017, Ofcom announced it has been doing some of its own testing and found that the state of UK geographical coverage is worse than it had previously thought. This is significant because geographical coverage has been a condition of some licenses and it has also been a focus for politicians ever since David Cameron got the hump about not being able to check the football scores on holiday.

“People have never relied so much on their phones in daily life. As a nation, we are using 13 times more mobile data than just five years ago,” said Ofcom CTO Steve Unger. “While the industry works to improve mobile coverage, it’s vital people can get a trustworthy picture of reception across the UK. Using our tools, mobile users can see which network offers the best service in areas where they live, work and travel, before they take out a new phone contract.”

Ofcom state of mobile

Speaking to operator sources learned there are many question marks around this shifting of the goalposts by Ofcom and the subsequent political opportunism by Lord Adonis, the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission – a body that seems to have been set up to moan about UK telecoms.

Firstly, Ofcom has been far from transparent about its methodology. Its new criteria for ‘coverage’ are “Nearly all 90 second voice calls to be completed without interruption and speeds for nearly all data connections to be fast enough for users to browse the internet and watch mobile video effectively.” The latter, apparently, requires a minimum data throughput of 2 Mbps. But how sure can Ofcom be of the extent of those areas that fall short? Did it measure every square foot of the country and if so how?

And then there’s the unilateral nature of the revision. When it imposed geographical coverage obligations on operators originally there would have been an agreed set of criteria, which those operators have presumably been striving to fulfil. It hardly seems fair to both shift the goalposts and then immediately condemn operators for flouting the new criteria.

Which brings us onto Adonis. He wasted no time whatsoever in writing an open letter to Sharon White – the head of Ofcom – lamenting how terrible it all is and, of course, how much he cares about the poor, old UK population that has to struggle under the yoke of this medieval infrastructure.

“Despite licence obligations that were intended to provide coverage to 90% of the UK’s landmass by the end of 2017, large parts of the country remain without reliable coverage – with almost a third of the UK’s geography unable to receive a signal from all four operators,” wrote Adonis.

“A range of policies should be considered including, but not limited to, re-examining the case for roaming in areas where there are ‘not spots’, making better use of existing spectrum and encouraging MNOs to share masts where possible.”

The first quote reveals another major problem with this Ofcom manoeuvre – the need for 90% of the country to be covered by all four operators. We would imagine that Three, which is seldom slow to moan, is likely to be especially aggrieved at this since it has the smallest network. And, for that matter, why is it so important that we’re able to choose between four providers when we’re at the top of a Welsh mountain?

Then Adonis starts banging on about making better use of existing spectrum. We have to wonder what existing spectrum he has in mind and how he thinks that spectrum is being under-used. He presumably knows that higher frequency spectrum won’t address coverage issues so he must think operators are sitting on sub-1 GHz spectrum, which seems unlikely.

Ultimately, when the state starts grandstanding about telecoms provision you have to question how it positions it. If it’s a utility then surely the government should be doing more to help resolve these issues than just moaning, such as facilitating sites on public land. If it’s a private enterprise then it should either chuck it some public money or shut up. Sadly neither seem likely.