Comparative Policy – a Broadband Perspective

By | March 17, 2017

Students of Comparative Policy need thick skins.

Setting any nation’s performance in a wider European or Global context rarely gains instant domestic approval. The observations will often be criticized or dismissed out of hand.

The exceptions to the general “Rubbish!” rule are twofold: firstly a position at or near the top of the league and, secondly, the judgments of ‘market forces’ where, for example, currency exchange rates cannot be denied.

But apart from the economic metrics there are vast swathes of national and regional policy that are routinely analysed with variable rigour and presented in league tables alongside debate-fueling generalisations.

There are however very good reasons to encourage Comparative Policy studies.  In an era where evidence-led policy is supposedly at a premium (and seen as an antidote to ideological beliefs) Comparative Policy can both inspire fresh thinking and demand deeper understanding of contexts.

What then are we to make of the EU’s study of National Broadband Plans? (StudyonNationalBroadbandPlansNBPsintheEU-28 )

Firstly it is evident that the work takes time – in this case 2+ years – and, in a very dynamic arena, the policy snapshot is easily blurred.   That reinforces a general criticism of trying to drive forward whilst looking only in the rear view mirror.

Secondly the study has qualitative elements expressed as generalisations that may have a degree of truth but can also be disputed. One of the key findings in this EU-wide broadband study is that: The National Broadband Plans (NBPs) of the Member States usually set one or two foci out of the following spheres: Demand Side measures, Supply Side measures, Regulatory and Organizational measures, Transparency measures. See graphic.

In contrast to Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Estonia which are all judged to primarily have a Demand Side focus, The UK, Ireland, France and Germany are all firmly in the Supply Side camp. Spain and Portugal, are, the report suggests, more clearly driven by Regulatory policies.

Those generalisations for Scandinavian countries would surely have been very different in, say, 2004 when fibre investment was prioritised.  It seems reasonable to presume that their current Demand Side focus is simply the result of higher application awareness.  There’s no knowing what folks will do with it once they are allowed to connect symmetrically and at high speed.

I doubt that ARCEP would so readily accept a relative dismissal of their central role and OFCOM/DCMS, in recent times, might claim to be more citizen/enterprise-focussed than simply acting as an industry market referee.

But whatever truths UK readers choose to accept, the idea that Comparative Policy studies can inject fresh thinking into central policy development has to battle with embedded nationalistic enthusiasms for some uniquely ‘British’ approach. Whether that’s the same uniqueness as our oft cited ‘glorious ability to muddle through’ is an open question.

Those in our UK cities and regions who critically understand the limitations of Westminster and effectiveness of policy development would probably observe that their local needs and priorities would be better served by greater freedoms to properly look after the weave of their local economic fabric.