Broadband – Can Fibre Technology Revolutionise The UK Economy?
The broadband debate continues…
I am lucky enough to get plenty of opportunities to attend events in some outstanding buildings through my Livery Company. I have attended events in Guildhall, Mansion House and Apothecary’s Hall to name a few. But it isn’t every day that I get an invitation to attend an event in the Houses of Parliament Terrace Pavilion.
I was invited to a reception, hosted by Mark Tami MP – Can Fibre Technology Revolutionise The UK Economy? It was an opportunity to learn about the latest developments in the optical networking technologies supporting our everyday communications. The event was sponsored by Sorrento Networks, part of the Comtek Group.
” My cufflinks and shirt collar stays earned me a thorough pat down search, proving I am not as clever as I thought I was.”
I really didn’t know what to expect. I have written in this blog several times about the post code lottery we are faced with regarding broadband access and I thought this debate may make some progress towards addressing some of these issues. What did amaze me was the number of people in attendance. It is very difficult to get people to attend events and while joining my first, but unfortunately not last or longest queue of the evening I was optimistic that the event would deliver on promise.
As you would imagine, you have to go through a rigorous security check to get in to the Houses of Parliament. After the first check at the gate we all queued to get through the X-Ray machines. I stripped (what I thought was) every bit of metal from my person and was quizzed by security as a final stage before passing through the scanner. “Have you removed all metal objects from your pockets?” “Yes.” I replied. Can you remove your belt and watch and place them in the tray and then walk through the scanner please?” “Yes of course.” Feeling over confident that I was clear of any metal objects and would pass this initial intelligence test with flying colo…” BLEEP BLEEP. My cufflinks and shirt collar stays earned me a thorough pat down search, proving I am not as clever as I thought I was.
“This was the first of two magnificent halls on our journey to the Terrace Pavilion.”
As I was jesting with the security guard telling him I failed the metal test on purpose as I am a serial attention seeker. He said in that case he would be charging me for the massage. At least I got a security guard with a sense of humour. After the thorough search I retrieved my clothing from the bag and coat scanner I moved on swiftly while fighting to get my belt back on with arms full and entered Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall dates back to 1097, built during the reign of William II, son of William the Conqueror. This was the first of two magnificent halls on our journey to the Terrace Pavilion.
We were the held in St Stephen’s Hall for a while until the venue was ready so I had a chance to soak up the atmosphere and wonder about the history of Parliament and the human cost of our right to vote and have a say in our Government. When we were eventually allowed to leave St Stephen’s Hall we passed an outstanding reception area that appeared to be a junction between several areas of Parliament. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos but I can only describe it as outstanding.
“…had it not been for Sir Joseph Bazalgette I wouldn’t be standing here at all.”
We were then queueing along a narrow corridor serving a number of dining rooms waiting to be checked in to the event. Waiting staff were struggling to get through to maintain the flow of food and drinks to the rooms. We eventually got into the Terrace Pavilion and were greeted with a glass of wine. It was a really nice evening so I headed out to the open Terrace overlooking the Thames which was a welcome relief from the claustrophobic corridor.
While taking in the early evening sights and lights it occurred to me that had it not been for Sir Joseph Bazalgette I wouldn’t be standing here at all. As a result of two major cholera outbreaks and the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 the outstanding engineer designed and oversaw the construction of the sewage system that has served us so well for almost 150 years. Having generously estimated a sewage capacity for densest areas of the population of London he then had the incredible foresight of doubling it to cope with unforeseen circumstances and they would only be going through this once.This is why it has served us so well for so long.
“…Britain had the best innovation in the world in late 70s and 80s but due to a total lack of support many of our most talented people left the UK.”
Mark Sami MP opened the evening with the introduction followed by an off topic but interesting and admirable speech by Askar Sheibani, CEO of Sorrento Networks. Mr Sheibani talked about the fact that Britain had the best innovation in the world in late 70s and 80s but due to a total lack of support many of our most talented people left the UK. There were so many big names that disappeared or were totally absorbed by other businesses. Mr Sheibani reminded us that Nortel were one of the best companies for fibre development. Where are they now? Where are Marconi? These were highly respected names in the industry. Some years ago if I needed network equipment for a relatively harsh environment I chose Nortel and it never let me down.
Mr Sheibani also made the point that we are still suffering from a big shortage of skilled people but what was most inspiring about Mr Sheibani’s speech is that he is proving that we can still innovate, design and manufacture product in the UK, but if we are to survive and thrive, companies in the UK need to support UK manufacturers. Sorrento Networks are certainly bucking the trend by manufacturing every part of their equipment in the UK.
Immediately after Mr Sheibani’s speech, Ian Lucas MP introduced the main topic for the evening The preliminary areas for discussion were listed as:
- Is the Government’s present Digital Economy policy effective? If not what is needed?
- Should OpenReach be totally independent from BT?
- Is Ofcom having a positive impact on the UK’s telecom sector? If not, what needs to change?
- How can Fibre infrastructure benefit the UK economy, especially in light of Brexit?
- How might the upcoming business rate revaluation affect fibre infrastructure?
- What is you organisation’s standpoint? What should the Government do to create a fertile ground for sustained growth in the Digital Economy?
Notably, Ian Lucas MP made the point that there is enormous demand for broadband and he believes we are ‘on the cusp of something quite big’. He went on to say that the communications industry needs to present him with solutions to problems. He said we need to be more like the automotive industry, working together for the benefit of the industry. He went on to say that contrast, there has been too much destructive competition in the telecommunications industry in recent years.
The panel members went on to introduce themselves ready to field questions from the audience. During the introductions it was clear that the situation with Openreach is considered to be a major setback to our industry. The fact that we still don’t have a structurally separate infrastructure provider is far from ideal and the key to success is access to infrastructure.
Garry Miller of BT gave an update on where BT see the future stating that their research labs are currently working on bandwidths up to 5Tbps and growing. BT are also deploying G.Fast across UK pushing the boundaries of maths and physics to get every last bit of data out of a copper connection to achieve speeds greater than 300Mbps.
Kim Mears of Openreach believes that Physical Infrastructure Access may be the best option for the future as civil works are always very expensive in the UK. PIA provides a potential solution as it gives communications providers access to ducts and poles, and therefore, direct cable or circuit access to their customers.
Several other related aspects were discussed as a result of questions from the audience but in my opinion the six main questions remained unanswered. I hasten to add, we only had 45 minutes and it was a little ambitious to even consider answering such an emotive list of questions in so little time. There were a number of interesting points raised during the question and answer panel session:
- We must avoid a two speed system with say 10Mbps in good areas and 2Mbps in others.
- Other countries such as Sweden pay significantly more for their services, we cannot expect 100 – 1000Mbps services without significant tariff increases.
- BT are backing G.Fast as a cost effective means of extending broadband reach.
- Brexit doesn’t affect whether broadband is required or not.
- The new EU rule ‘Access to Infrastructure’ is around 90% cheaper than digging fresh. Although pilots have been underway for some time, there is still some uncertainty as to whether the UK will adopt this across the board, even though Ofcom were first to consider this as an option and publish concepts.
- When asked if fibre could revolutionise the UK economy one of the panel drew an analogy with electricity. He asked… “Who would have thought what was possible before it was deployed? Our imagination is our only limit.”
- Unless telecommunications companies work together the deployment focus will remain in major urban areas and in particular the South East. However, the fact the telecoms sector is commercial rather than government adds to the challenge.
In my opinion, if we could have given the six preliminary areas of discussion a whole day it still would not have been sufficient time. It was a good ‘starter for ten’ but nothing more. What was interesting is that Mr Sheibani suggested that individuals from telecommunications organisations should meet regularly at a forum to discuss these topics in more detail. I believe this to be a constructive approach provided there is structure in the discussions. Our industry has a track record of working together on our industry standards (although not necessarily without the occasional problem) so why not at grass roots level.
“Something needs to be done but it is going to take significant investment. I am not convinced that any of these interim measures will serve the UK well in the long term.”
I believe we do need a major rethink in the way we are approaching broadband delivery. There are still many areas across the UK with little or no broadband access. A lack of access to good quality broadband has a detrimental effect on education and industry. It affects property prices, and it inevitably stunts economic growth in broadband deprived areas. Something needs to be done but it is going to take significant investment. I am not convinced that any of these interim measures will serve the UK well in the long term. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Bazalgette’s book and design for the future whether that is with fibre, copper, wireless or a hybrid solution. Whatever we do, we must do it right and like Bazalgette, do it once!
Thank you Sorrento Networks for a thought provoking evening in magnificent surroundings. Very much appreciated.