30 March 2016

Britain’s lamentable broadband needs intense competition

By Dan Lewis

The uneven spread of fibre broadband in different European states, reaching less than 1%  of premises in Britain, compared to over 60% in Lithuania, Portugal and Spain, offers the rest of the world useful examples of how, and how not, to join the next digital age.

Competition in telecoms infrastructure, passive network sharing, embracing next generation technologies and above all, facing down dominant incumbents appears to be the best way ahead. But in some European nations, specific policies and monopolies, not least in Britain, have conspired to do quite the reverse.

This matters because networks will have to be orders of magnitude more capable to stand up to the very demanding technologies of 2020-30: 5G mobile, virtual and enhanced reality, self-driving cars, drones, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. Already, it is quite clear that the big incumbents, like BT, Deutsche Telekom and Swisscom are loathe to move on from their legacy copper assets by upgrading to fibre optic cable to the premises.

It all looked very different 20 years ago. Under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Britain was the first European country to open up its telecoms market to some competition. Much of Europe followed in the 1990s. De-monopolisation of telecoms markets however, is a long and winding road. After initial positive steps, progress in much of Europe has stalled and Britain in particular has lost a lot of time.

The disappointment for the UK is that while demand for the internet has increased dramatically, corresponding investment and competition in the related infrastructure has not. Very few competitors to BT chose to move up the value chain and compete by investing in an alternative network. BT itself had no real interest in making its own copper network redundant by investing in fibre to the premises, instead choosing to buy a mobile phone company and TV sporting rights to position themselves against multiple offerings from competitors.

Britain’s problems were further compounded by a government-subsidised programme to increase fibre to the cabinet across the country. In a badly designed competition that failed to bring in new entrants, BT won 86 out of 91 of the contracts, equating to a subsidy of £400 million per year. And according to Ofcom, the UK regulator, BT has since gained 74% of the new superfast connections, thus bringing re-monopolisation of the fixed access network back into sight. Meanwhile the UK is tumbling down the global performance leagues ranking 23rd according to the Internet Society for download speeds and a meagre 39th for upload speeds.

Europe nevertheless does have pockets of competitive excellence. From 2004, Lithuania, not a wealthy country, has overseen internet infrastructure and service competition growth on steroids. By mandating open access at very low price to all of the physical infrastructure of cable ducts, fibre and poles of the incumbent TEO, Lithuania has jumped spectacularly from being a relative backwater to the global broadband premier league. Over 60% of new network was built by alternative network providers and the country now boasts the 3rd highest download and upload speeds in the world, Europe’s highest fibre to the house penetration, the world’s fastest public WiFi. In other nations like Spain and Portugal, research from Citi shows there is a clear linkage between low access costs, wider fibre deployment and greater take up.

Finding the private sector capital to make the investment shouldn’t be that hard at all. New, low cost, fibre infrastructure could be the Holy Grail for Pension Funds which aim for returns over 15-20 years. To get to that point, separating the network from the incumbent service provider has to be on the table, to create the commercial levers and investible assets for change. Clearly this has worked in New Zealand, where shareholders in Chorus, the network owner, and Spark, the residual telecom and broadband provider, have both gained. As a result the country is on track to have 75% fibre to the homes penetration by 2020.

Too much of Europe is being held back by the high cost, obstructive, inefficient unionised payrolls of the old copper monopolies. But the future won’t wait. Fibre and the resilient hybrid infrastructure of mobile and satellite that can be built around it will prove to be amongst the best infrastructure investments ever made.

Dan Lewis is Senior Infrastructure Adviser of the Institute of Directors, CEO of Future Energy Strategies and the Economic Policy Centre is author of Towards Ultrafast Britain published by the Institute of Directors