The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has published the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR)– all 90 pages of it. Real Wireless CEO Mark Keenan reports back on his holiday reading.

So was it worth the wait? On balance, we believe so. The FTIR is a detailed look at the future of fibre connectivity and 5G rollout for the UK. It also places emphasis on eventual convergence across fixed and mobile networks. The review discusses the benefits of various strategies for making these aims real, barriers to their achievement and enablers for the desired outcomes. These outcomes are expressed in the section headings Nationwide Full Fibre Connectivity, A World Leader in 5G, and Convergence between Full Fibre and 5G.

Whether you agree with these desired outcomes or not this an important document that is certainly attracting comment now and will no doubt continue to attract comment as interested parties review performance against intentions. Real Wireless, as the world’s leading independent wireless advisory firm, is a very interested party.

So what are our initial impressions? We certainly approve of the review’s stated intentions that all strategy should consider fixed and wireless components of the system. Best practice in networks/systems engineering within the wireless industry has treated that as a given for years, so it’s encouraging to see that policymakers are catching up.

Expectations, however, are less encouraging, though at least some are realistic. The report suggests that the UK should aim for 100% Fibre to the premises (FTTP) by 2033. The same report notes that Korea and Japan are very close to that figure already. It’s quite a gap.

One of the positives of the report is that it is strong on enabling strategies. For instance, it discusses increased access to spectrum for innovative 5G services, as well as operators being provided with a ‘right to entry’ to tenanted properties for access to provide 5G. On the face of it, this sounds fine, but such a recommendation needs to come with a caveat: it could mean increased access to spectrum by MNOs whose business model creates a financial asset of spectrum and thus raises barriers to sharing. That, surely, would be contrary to the aims of this review and needs to be guarded against.

Does this document give a real impression of the opportunity offered by 5G? Not always. Quite often it does give an impression of falling back on business-as-usual structures. At the same time, however, the report is seeking to loosen the straightjacket constraining some aspects of 5G rollout and that should be welcomed. The survey of global trends in ‘flexible 5G licensing strategies’, supporting narrative around shared access models, and proposed review of these issues in the context of 3.6-3.8GHz. These are, in our view, a very important signal to the market and regulator that now is the time for change – we support that view. In this context we should mention that the AutoAir project focuses on neutral host models and delivering high capacity coverage to road and rail – and that Real Wireless will carry out the business modelling. New models are, we believe, essential to the future of 5G and to assist with business model innovation the concessions mentioned in the review are important.

As we have noted, responses to the report from industry, as well as journalists and advisory groups like us, are already coming in – and some are very interesting. BT in particular was quoted in Mobile News as saying: ‘BT is already investing in 5G and in FTTP where we want to invest further and faster across the country – but to do so we need to be confident of making a fair return.’ It’s hard to know how to take this given that a return can’t actually be guaranteed – nor should it. Which may be why analysts are being a touch more tentative in their responses. IDC European mobility associate vice president John Delaney said: ‘It’s a set of good intentions but they will need to be realised.’ It’s true that actions speak louder than words. That’s why we’ll be looking at government announcements as they emerge and seeing how consistent they are with the aims of the review.

Finally, we’d like to touch on continuity and consistency. Many reviews were carried out before this one, notably the National Infrastructure Commission’s Future Communications Infrastructure review published in 2016. The NIC was intended to articulate a longer-term vision that went beyond political instability (such as elections and minister changes). Continuity from the Future Communications Infrastructure review to this programme may be difficult to discern for those that do not follow these processes carefully. There are nods to the NIC review, and DCMS has signalled intent through this report. Real Wireless will continue to play its part in bringing innovative ideas to our clients, helping to catalyse change in the market, and an important aspect of that strategic advice is staying abreast of changes in political and economic influences.

Our view is that for a truly integrated industrial strategy the regulatory approach has to change. Without that change efficiency of implementation could well be negatively impacted. It’s important to recognise that EU law stipulates independence of regulatory regime. It’s true that the Digital Economy Act requires Ofcom to heed strategic priorities but Ofcom needs to say how it will address these; the accountability is not clear.

In the next blog on the FTIR we provide an in-depth look at investment models, cost of deployment, standardised rollout and new player opportunity. We also welcome your thoughts, both on our comments and on the review itself. Just email us at info@real-wireless.com

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