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Diminishing the ‘Digital Divide’ – Fibre technology industry panel evening at House of Commons

Ben Allwright, CEO
20.03.2017

Fibre technology panel at House of Commons

Flomatik were invited to the Terrace Pavilion at the House of Commons on March 15th to discuss whether fibre technology can revolutionise the UK economy.

Hosted by Mark Tami MP and chaired by Ian Lucas MP, the panel included:

  • Mark Collins – Director, Strategy and Public Affairs for Cityfibre
  • Barney Lane – Regulatory Director at Colt
  • Garry Miller – Head of Infrastructure Policy for BT Group
  • Askar Sheibani – CEO of The Comtek Group (Sorrento Networks)

The current state of UK broadband

Sorrento’s CEO kicked off proceedings with an overview of their network technologies. Each panelist then outlined their organization’s activities and commented on the state of UK broadband. An hour-long audience-led Q&A session followed, within the context of securing the UK’s long term prosperity post Brexit.

The role of BT

Audience members made strong arguments for ubiquitous UK fibre coverage, lessening ‘digital divides’ and driving future economic and social development. BT faced sharp criticism for slow, patchy rollouts. Some condemned legacy copper networks as unfit for purpose and accused BT of protectionism, strangling the UK economy with a monopoly position. Arguments were also made for simpler, cheaper Open Access (such as DPA) to stimulate competition and underpin fibre deployment.

But BT is a commercial entity and their imperative is to return profits to shareholders, not to address such issues or to ensure the UK’s future prosperity. Despite copper’s shortcomings, why would BT invest billions in fibre if the business case isn’t right? Even the BDUK funding rounds awarded to BT didn’t mandate a fibre rollout, just minimum broadband speeds. Why would BT make it easier and cheaper for competitors, like City Fibre, or COLT, to draw competitive advantage from their infrastructure, and cannibalise existing revenues?

Reduce roll out costs
It’s further complicated when you consider the trend towards lower broadband prices too. Notwithstanding the strength of feeling about ‘fibre for all’, most consumers appear unwilling to pay a significant fibre premium- yet. So only the bravest, largest CPs will have the funds and imperative to build fibre today and these players will cherry pick the wealthier, denser, lower-cost conurbations, thus perpetuating the digital divide. Imagine proposing a rail connection to every single UK home?

As valuable cloud applications arise like connected cities, driverless cars, telemedicine, education, entertainment etc, this will improve the case, but for now efforts to improve the numbers will centre on reducing rollout costs.

Here the government and Ofcom have strong roles to play; acceleration of BT’s DPA product, supportive legislation and financial incentives, such as further public grants to network builders.

Invest in new technologies

For now, we need to stay grounded and get innovative, focusing first on removing unacceptable disadvantage. Ubiquitous UK FttH coverage will likely remain impractical and unaffordable for some years – and the sooner we accept this and invest in new technologies, such as wireless, the sooner the rural divide can be diminished.