Written by Garry Dix
There was a bullish attitude on show at last week’s Westminster eForum on the UK’s broadband connectivity and infrastructure – and not simply from BT and Virgin Media’s respective representatives on stage, swapping barbs about speech run times and holiday anecdotes.
In fact, after a rocky start where the esteemed Lord Inglewood admitted this was all a bit ‘theoretical’ as he doesn’t have any mobile reception or fibre connectivity in his house, it was Katherine Colloms, Director of Corporate Affair at OpenReach, who summed up the day best.
“In proportion to GDP, we have the biggest digital economy in the G20.”
It’s a great statistic – and certainly did echo what many of the speakers said – but if anyone was going to paint our connectivity in a positive light, it was going to be those that provide it.
It did seem that there was an aura of positivity used by many of the speakers in the four sessions. It was interesting to hear that all were in agreement that there is no shortage of funding and innovative delivery for connectivity in the United Kingdom, with companies actively looking towards collaboration to improve the state of the industry. There may still be substantial areas to improve within broadband, but to at least hear that financially we have the power to address this was reassuring.
Speaking of improvement, it was a question that needed to be – and was – raised: with all this positivity, why is there still so much discontent with the state of connectivity? Refreshingly, much of the discussion from various speakers seemed to pin it down to an understanding of the services being offered – specifically, with the way that providers present their services.
Richard Nuedegg, Head of Regulation at uSwitch gave some interesting examples. Firstly, who really knows what ‘up to’ speeds really deliver and, secondly, why don’t we contextualise speeds in how they are used? I certainly know family members who would happily swap out their figure-based internet package for a ‘streams Netflix with zero buffering’ one. Clarity, from regulation through to packages being sold, was the cry.
Big statements were also made about 5G. Paul Adams of Nokia swiftly knocked the idea that this was the ‘new 4G’ on its head, explaining that this was a technology that uses existing 3G, 4G and WiFi tech to address latency and bandwidth issues. Furthermore, it wouldn’t simply appear like 4G did, but would be built in partnership with the industry to provide the most value. However, with varying speeds being discussed by companies testing 5G and no real public example of the technology just yet, it remains to be seen how different the proposed 2020 launch will be to that of 4G.
Relatively often at these events it is the providers themselves that are speaking for the most part – sometimes leaving you with a one-sided version of events. So, I was pleased to hear from the National Infrastructure Committee, uSwitch, DCMS and Ofcom – all organisations with major stakes in ensuring that internet connectivity developed fairly and reached across the country.
From the splitting of OpenReach and the advent of 5G, through to the rapid expansion of ‘full fibre’ and smaller, niche players advancing with their coverage and technology at the same rate as the big boys, I left the forum optimistic about British telecoms and infrastructure. Yes, BT and Virgin are still going to snipe at one another, Ofcom is always going to field the toughest questions and your older relatives will perennially be confused by their broadband packages, but it does feel like we are on the edge of some fantastic advances in the space.