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.