Our first blog on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) made some general points on its admirable aims of full fibre connectivity and high-quality (mainly 5G) mobile connectivity where people live, work and travel. Now Real Wireless CTO Simon Fletcher considers some specific areas addressed in the review, discussing certain comments made within it.
That ‘the UK must become the easiest and the most attractive place to invest in new digital infrastructure’ is a genuinely great aspiration. However, it needs to be qualified. We need to establish best practice such that these approaches are portable to new markets. UK5G (in which Real Wireless plays a role) is explicitly described as a focal point for international engagement into the UK’s 5G eco-system. Encouraging international participation and investment should be an aim of future telecoms infrastructure rollout too.
On the other hand, market-based investment cannot always be the key. Thus we welcome the review’s comment that ‘While our aim is to maximise commercial investment in digital infrastructure, we recognise that parts of the country are likely to need more support than the market will provide alone.’ Of course, public/private is still a valid model. However, sustained innovation can quite often require government investment. It’s important that we are innovating, not just going for easy low-risk wins.
The review doesn’t shy away from actual figures, among them an estimate that the total level of investment required for the national roll out of full fibre will be in the region of £30 billion. It adds, however: ‘At the same time, earning a return on this large‑scale investment will require the mass take-up of full fibre services. A range of fibre products and pricing will be important to encourage the migration of the existing customer base from copper networks and recover the costs of the new networks.’
We certainly feel that these costs can be borne across verticals such as transport. While some verticals may not have assets that deliver the minimum cost deployment, if they are able to more effectively leverage the benefit then the return will be greater. Real Wireless works with a number of clients on harmonising with this national picture.
We are always concerned about potential hurdles to deployment and it’s pleasing that the review shares our concern. It says: ‘The Government has set up a Barrier Busting Task Force to investigate and tackle barriers to the deployment of digital infrastructure.’ Barrier Busting Task Force activities are indeed essential and in this context, well focused. The objective of standardising approaches in particular is spot-on. However, more clarity on how these standards (relating to things like access agreements, new build connectivity and street works) will be published is needed. It is well understood that open standards will be much more transformative than secretive approaches that are narrowly defined by existing stakeholders. Open approaches will enable innovators to enter existing supply chains.
In a similar vein we’d like more clarity on the review’s call for supporting market entry and expansion by alternative network operators. It’s certainly needed, some UK5G trials and testbed projects are experimenting with new approaches and seeking proof points on feasibility and viability this year and early next year. Can we expect to see changes in the market in 2019? – if not, when?
There’s a strong emphasis on access through strategies like DPA (duct and pole access) improvement. This too is a laudable sentiment. However, this passive sharing is way behind ideas pursued by advanced technology projects like NORMA and MoNArch and even the active sharing mechanisms that are already part of the standards. We need to be pushing not just passive but active systems sharing, based on cloud-oriented approaches.
Turning next to the promise of 5G, the review insists: ‘The technical capabilities and performance characteristics of 5G are clear. 5G is expected to deliver faster and better mobile broadband services to consumers and businesses, and to enable innovative new services for industry sectors, including manufacturing, transport, immersive technologies and healthcare.’ This is an area of concern for us. Too much emphasis on mobile broad band (MBB) evolution could lead to a downplaying of the far more important innovation opportunity. We feel, in other words that the key to 5G is to assume MBB business as usual will happen as part of the normal evolution of mobile technology and instead to really emphasise change dynamics through innovation.
That said, it’s good that new player opportunity is acknowledged more than once, in statements like: ‘While there is some uncertainty over the business models for 5G, we expect it to create new revenue opportunities for existing operators and also open up opportunities for new players to enter the UK market.’
Finally (for now at least) a quick comment on policy and regulation as assessed by the review. The review suggests that the policy and regulatory framework should be sufficiently flexible and forward-looking to reflect the growing convergence between fixed and mobile networks and services. In fact communications service providers have been strategizing in a converged way for several years.
Here the policy and regulatory environment is behind the curve. We really need to break down the separation of fixed and mobile. The road to convergence is not as long as the review sometimes implies.
This review is only a starting point, of course, as is the debate it is already stimulating new thoughts. We’ll have much more to say on how and whether the review’s aims are being met – or should be met – in future blogs. If you would like to contribute your thoughts please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read our first impressions here.