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Is the old boys' club choking Britain's broadband?

By Barry Collins

Posted on 12 Feb 2009 at 17:47

When Kip Meek, chairman of the "Government's leading advisory group on broadband", told an audience in November that it was "unfair" for the Government to plough money into a fibre broadband network, it was doubtless music to the ears of ministers. One minister, in particular.

Stephen Carter was appointed Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting by Gordon Brown in October. But five years earlier, it was Carter who was doing the hiring in his role as chief executive of telecoms regulator Ofcom - and it was one Kip Meek he appointed as an executive member of his Ofcom board.

Little wonder Meek ended his speech with: "Thank you all for coming and thank you in particular to Stephen [Carter]."

The situation is typical of the old boys' network that exists at the upper echelons of the beleaguered British broadband industry.

Former colleagues connect everything from the Ofcom boardroom to the Government, to Britain's biggest broadband companies. While Britain struggles with broadband speeds that are slower than those of Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, those at the forefront of the industry pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

The question is whether our internet is suffering as a result of the ties that connect the senior players in the British broadband industry.

Who's got the fibre?

The overriding concern of today's British broadband industry is who (if anyone) is going to pay for a much-needed fibre network. Earlier in 2008, the Government commissioned an "independent review" to, in its own words, "secure for the UK a world-class communications infrastructure".

The review was conducted by Francesco Caio, the former CEO of Cable & Wireless, who concluded that the case for Government money was "weak at best". The report even questioned the case for fibre full stop. "There is little evidence that, in the short term, UK consumers will experience a detriment due to the lack of an extensive NGA [Next Generation Access] network," it concluded, just two months before Ofcom research revealed that no fewer than a quarter of Britons are dissatisfied with their broadband speeds.

In November 2008, Francesco Caio was appointed as one of Stephen Carter's 11 "digital experts", who will help the minister create the blueprint for the country's technological future with his Digital Britain report. Caio's remit? Next-generation networks, of course.

Caio's report wasn't entirely his own work. He had help from Kip Meek's Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which calculated it would cost £28.8 billion to bring fibre right to the door of every home in Britain. In his November speech, Meek identified three ways in which a fibre rollout could be funded: Government subsidy, community projects and a "universal service commitment" that would force fibre providers to pay for rural deployment.

Government money was immediately dismissed: "Even prior to the credit crunch, the notion that Government finances could sort out this issue looked fanciful," Meek said.

He was, however, far keener on his universal service commitment idea, claiming that
"just as the benefits of NGA will be spread, so too should be its costs of implementation".

If that argument sounds familiar, that's because it was the very same point made by BT chief executive Ian Livingston earlier this year. "There are 200-odd service providers. Why should all the USO [Universal Service Obligation] fall on BT Retail?" Livingston argued.

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