Regional Broadband, the Lords Select Committee and Google Fibre in the UK

Some of you may be aware of the Google Fibre project which is an experimental project to  build a high-speed FTTH network to the communities in Kansas City. They chose Kansas City from a number of different communities who responded to Google’s “beauty contest” for this pilot, because they had to pick just one and felt that it would have the greatest effect and be the best community to work with.

Like many other Community Broadband projects, Google point out that what the large incumbent telcos sell as “high speed internet” is seldom “high speed” at all, and is commonly sub 4Mb/sec. Google estimate that during the pilot, the cost of works for lighting up each subscriber premises may be as much as $8000 – though this is cheaper than the £10000 that it’s rumoured to cost to deploy high speed broadband to a rural subscriber in the UK.

So, this got me thinking, what could Google potentially bring to the UK with a similar sort of project?

It strikes me that one of the ways that Google could help the most is by facilitating the existing community benefit-based FTTC/FTTH groups to build networks in their communities, which right now can be frustrated by lack of access to public money from the super-fast broadband deployment fund (aka BDUK).

A significant amount of BDUK money is going to BT as the incumbent, or needs complex joint-venture constructs (such as Digital Region – though that was not a BDUK-funded project), because these organisations firstly have whole departments dedicated to handling the paperwork required to bid for the public funding, and secondly because they have a sufficiently high turnover to bid for a sufficient amount of public money to deliver the project. These are hurdles to community led companies, who will most likely just drown in the paperwork to bid for the funding, may not have all the necessary expertise either on staff or under contract, and likely don’t have the necessary turnover to support the application for the funding.

Meanwhile, the House of Lords Communications Select Commitee have issued this request for evidence (.pdf) in respect of an inquiry into whether the Government’s Super-fast Broadband strategy (and the BDUK funding) is going to be able to repair “digital divides” (and prevent new ones), deliver enough bandwidth where it’s needed, provide enough of a competitive market place in broadband delivery (such as a competitive wholesale fibre market), and generally “do enough”.

Could this be where Google enters stage left? As opposed to running the project in it’s entirety, they partner up – managing things such as the funding bid process on behalf of the communities, possibly acting as some sort of guarantor in place of turnover, as well as providing technical knowhow and leveraging their buying power and contacts?

This would at least give an alternative route to super-fast broadband. Right now, BT are winning a lot of the County Council led regional/rural fast broadband deployment projects, sometimes because they are the only organisation able to submit a compliant bid.

It remains to be seen if the money will benefit the real not-spots, or just prop-up otherwise marginal BT FTTC roll outs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no axe to grind with BT, but is the current situation, with little or no competition, ultimately beneficial to the communities that the awarded funding is purporting to benefit?

This is certainly one of the questions the House of Lords enquiry is looking to answer.

2 thoughts on “Regional Broadband, the Lords Select Committee and Google Fibre in the UK”

  1. I think the model of having the county/council owning the last-mile, as they do with other local infrastructure is the way to go. Then need a national standards “council” to set how points of interconnect are setup, how fibre is run etc, guides on pricing, APIs for ordering.
    Happy to have the infrastructure owned but then managed on behalf of the county/council by, hopefully independent companies (ie. not incumbents) to try and reduce costs. Having vertically integrated incumbents doing the work and hoping for a good economic outcome is never going to work.

    1. Interesting comments. One of the issues has been the lack of competent organisations who have been able to submit compliant bids for BDUK funding other than the incumbent.

      There’s a strong chance that even if the wholesale last-mile infrastructure was in some way municipally owned, the number of capable organisations who could successfully build, operate and manage is very small, and obviously include the incumbent.

      In the case of New Zealand, very few compliant bids were recieved for the UFB franchises, and again, the majority of franchises were awarded to a subsidary of the incumbent because they were the only compliant submission (or the only submission!).

      In the UK, last-mile infrastructure such as electricity distribution and sewers are generally already privatised.

      It’s also worth looking at experiences with other municipal fibre “monopolies” – such as Stokab in Stockholm. It’s certainly made FTTH/FTTP deployments more common in Stockholm, but it’s come at a cost of a lack of choice for the consumer of wholesale fibre service.

      We’ve also got a less than stellar track record of deregulating privatising services, then trying to run them for public benefit – look at Network Rail, for instance. Sounds good in practice, but has proved more complex.

      There’s almost certainly a need to do something, but what and how is the question?

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