Fighting for a Gigabit Society

By | March 24, 2017

The prospects and implications of Gigabit connectivity are demanding serious attention.

In the European Parliament and here in the UK the gloves are off. Combatants are climbing into the ring. Referees are calling for a fair fight. The danger is that silo thinking, with far too much concentration on the health of the telecom industry itself, will dominate the debate and overlook the bigger picture of creating value in the wider economy and generating greater wellbeing.

The European Parliament is now discussing a proposed Directive – a European Electronic Communications Code – the new Framework. Not surprisingly, familiar voices are making their views known.   ETNO, representing the ex-monopoly incumbents and dominant fixed and mobile suppliers is fighting for predictability, reduced regulation (especially on remedies), longer spectrum licences and funding mechanisms via public funds for Universal Service.   In the opposing corner ECTA, representing new entrants and competing operators, say that promotion of competition has been side lined, and removal of regulation must be preceded by convincing market analysis.

Here in the UK the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is beavering away compiling an assessment of society’s needs in 2030 and 2050. In their approach the Digital infrastructure is just one thread that must be interwoven with views on transport, energy, waste and other essential infrastructures. Courtesy of Sir John Armitt’s work before the 2015 General Election, long-term planning has largely been removed from partisan politics. But that massive relief from the electoral cycle has not lessened debate within the digital industries or between different levels of public administration.

What do businesses and consumers have to say about these debates?

A Gigabit Society must surely deliver connectivity absolutely everywhere. That connectivity must be seamless and work across national borders if the real opportunities for greater wellbeing and economic development are to be realised. Can we avoid wasteful investment duplication in the race to achieve full coverage? What mix of fibre and wireless connectivity is needed to reach every location? Is it really necessary to preserve choice at every point of the value chain?  The cross-impacts with energy and transport policies are complex. The educational effort to explain all this to business owners and citizens is immense.

The current industry model of national islands of fixed and mobile networks, with some instances of several owned by one holding company, is far from ideal. It maintains a fragmented patchwork (or ‘hotchpotch’) that creates barriers to future service innovation.

The huge benefits available, especially in the public sector, are stifled by an inability to connect everyone and everything. The EU’s deliberations, and those here in the UK, provide lessons for the rest of the world. It is essential that these debates fuel ‘joined up thinking’ about our futures. They should not become bogged down in short-term commercial rivalries between vested interests.

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Graphic Source:  LS telecom UK – report for the National Infrastructure Commission: 5G Infrastructure Requirements for the UK