Broadband: Opportunities lost for UK industry

Posted on 24 Jul 2018 by Jonny Williamson

The optimistic tone of the government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review belies decades of waste and failure, as The Manufacturer’s editorial director, Nick Peters reports.

Network cables closeup internet broadband fibre optic - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Manufacturers are having to go to the significant expense of bespoke connections because the market in 2018 cannot deliver what they need – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Yesterday, the government proudly announced its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review.

The announcement read: “At its heart is an emphasis on greater consumer choice and initiatives to promote quicker rollout and an eventual full switch over from copper to fibre.”

Pop quiz time:
1. When was fibre optic cable first identified as the answer to our nation’s communications needs?
2. Which company developed the technology that would have made the UK a world leader?
3. Which UK Prime Minister killed the project stone dead?

The answers: fibre optic cable was identified as the communications technology of the future in the 1970s by British Telecom, which developed partnerships in Japan and South Korea and built two factories in the UK to make fibre optic cable.

The project was killed in 1990 by Margaret Thatcher. The factories were sold to Japanese companies and the UK went from being a world leader to the world laggard it is today.

That is why the phrase “an eventual switch over from copper to fibre” rings so hollow. We could have done it all, long before the birth of the World Wide Web, but chose not to. Others did and are reaping the benefits.

In response to yesterday’s paper, EEF commented, “Today’s Review is a major step towards delivering the full fibre digital network that industry needs to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution…

“Manufacturers across the country have been investing in leased lines to get around the unreliable connectivity options in their area, but for those furthest away from fibre connections this has proven too costly to achieve.

“For manufacturers looking to invest in digital technologies to boost their productivity, today’s announcement of an ‘outside-in’ strategy, which will see hard to reach rural areas prioritised first for government support, is a significant mark of progress.”

EEF bolstered its cautious welcome with some statistics:

  • 91% of manufacturers say a high-speed internet connection is as essential to their business as electricity and water
  • Over a third of manufacturers are spending more than £5,000 p/a on internet connections (23% of small manufacturers, 50% of mid-sized and 89% of large)
  • A third of manufacturers have invested in a dedicated leased line connection

Think about that. Manufacturers are having to go to the significant expense of bespoke connections because the market in 2018 cannot deliver what they need.

I confess this has been a bee in my bonnet for more than a decade. In 2007, I moved to rural Sussex, right next door to the Surrey border. Our telephone exchange was based in Surrey, with our nearest junction box in a muddy, slurry-filled cow field near Dorking. (I may have exaggerated that last bit for dramatic effect.)

Fast and slow progress loading bar internet speed - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
For manufacturers looking to invest in digital technologies to boost their productivity, speed of connection has become vital – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

In broadband terms, we could only get 0.5mbps. As I was running a business that required speedy, hefty file transfers, I frantically sought an alternative and found it in the form of a wireless broadband provider that had spotted the gap in the market and filled it, using tried and tested technologies deployed across vast areas of the US and Australia.

I was soon receiving 20mbps via a tiny antenna on my roof, fed by a transmitter on the North Downs. I immediately ditched our BT landline and have never looked back. (I still refuse to have a landline in my house.)

I was so enthused by this service that I evangelised about it to contacts in local and national government, including ministers. Here was a reliable broadband service that could provide powerful connections to rural areas with minimal infrastructure and rapid delivery.

Did they listen? Not a chance. BT was the trusted partner and that was that. The fix was in.

BT went on to focus on servicing the consumer sector because it could make more money from that but left industrial estates high and dry. Consequently, businesses have had to remain in high-rent areas near decent connections, rather than take advantage of lower-rent premises in rural areas.

Farmers seeking to diversify their land use by renting space to businesses have been held back because they cannot guarantee their tenants decent broadband.

BT in the meantime has swallowed vast amounts of taxpayer cash and failed to deliver. No matter how the government dresses this up, the legacy of short-sighted telecommunications policy embodied by that Thatcher veto in 1990 lives on. Businesses have suffered, the country has suffered.

Industrial strategy – if there really is going to be one – requires vision, strategy, investment, commitment and delivery. Let us hope the current industrial strategy, as it unfolds, does not fall down the same pit of waste and ineptitude that has characterised broadband rollout in the UK.

Postscript: BT has only ever appeared to accelerate broadband rollout when under pressure. Today is no exception. Following the latest government review, published yesterday, Openreach (formerly BT’s property but now spun off to manage the national network) announced it was slashing wholesale prices to providers such as Sky and TalkTalk who use the BT network, therefore lowering broadband prices.

Highly welcome. But in the context of providing cheap broadband to businesses and rural areas, meaningless.