Back in 2011, the government proposed an initiative to equip the whole of the UK with access to superfast broadband by May 2015, earmarking £530 million for the nationwide project. However, developments have so far been slow and dogged by criticism, and the scheme is already subject to a two-year delay. Lord Inglewood, as Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, last year led a report detailing the progress of the rollout, and ITProPortal caught up with him to learn more about his views.
What do you do in your role as Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications?
The House of Lords Select Committee for Communications has a remit to look on behalf of the House of Lords at media and telecoms issues. It's very much up to us how we do it and what we do within those terms of reference and we are part of the scrutiny that Parliament carries out of the executive. So we can both help and hinder what the government's agenda might be. In reality I, as the chairman of the committee, reach an agreement with my members as to what sort of work we're going to do.
The 2012 'Broadband for All' report concluded that "progress is clearly being made... however, the Government have proceeded from a flawed prospectus, that the progress being made may prove illusory." What has happened in the last year and what is the state of play at present?
The government is continuing to proceed with its policy and the broadband rollout is taking place, albeit more slowly than either they or we would like. What is interesting is that I sense in a number of areas the government is sort of slightly changing its position and coming closer to doing the kind of things that we advocated. Although the way a government is, they very rarely admit to U-turns.
Some critics argue that there is an urban bias to the superfast broadband rollout – is this true and, if so what can be done to remedy the situation?
I'm not sure it's necessarily true. It's a perception of people like me who live in the countryside but there are areas such as just south of the river in London that have very bad broadband links. I think that if there's any kind of bias, it has been - for reasons that can be quite clearly understood - towards those areas that are most prosperous. So a number of poor urban areas have not got good connection and equally much of the countryside, where there isn't much money available to pay for the use of this infrastructure. What we've got to do is to start from the proposition that we need to cable up or to broadband up the country as a whole and we want to press on with it as fast and as sensibly as we can.
The 2012 report made a number of key recommendations. What were these and what has been achieved in the last year?
There's a whole series of recommendations, and some are obviously more important than others. I was re-looking at them, and what's interesting is that they fall into two categories. Some of which are in themselves pretty significant, in that they would represent a complete shift in the way in which the government's policy was to be taken forward and that really hasn't happened. On the other hand, if you then look at a lot of the smaller recommendations, these are being incorporated in the way in which the broadband rollout is being proceeded with. They may be incorporated because the government has read and agreed with our report, or the government may have come to that conclusion separately anyway.
How does UK digital access compare to the rest of Europe?
I think it's probably a mistake to take the rest of Europe as a homogenous whole. Different countries do things in different ways. I don't think we're hopeless and I don't think we're the best either. We're somewhere in the middle. There's always a difficulty in how you measure these things. We say – I believe quite rightly – that speed is a useful but not by any means the sole criterion for measuring success in this area. So I think the answer is that Europe is proceeding at different paces in different places. In some of the eastern countries it's actually better than in the west because they haven't got the infrastructure of the previous generation of telecoms. So I don't think it's terribly helpful to compare.
Broadband Delivery UK has come under fire for its handling of the £530m earmarked for the delivery of next-gen access. It has been accused of lowering the standards for superfast and missing deadlines, with NAO reports hinting that only nine of 44 projects will meet the original deadline of May 2015. What is the explanation for this?
I think it's a combination of things. There was a delay dealing with the European Commission over competition policy aspects of the procedures. That was ironed out but it took longer than expected. I think if you talked to the European Commission they will say that the UK government was probably at fault in this regard, and I know that the UK government says that the European Commission was at fault for dragging its feet. The problem was that the perceptions of the UK government and the European Commission about what were the appropriate criteria for open networks seemed to be slightly different from each other. Personally, I think that the commission was right in pushing for as much open access as possible.
The scheme has also been criticised for lacking competition, with BT dominating contracts. Was the bidding process competitive enough in your view?
The bidding process was competitive, but in fact what has occurred in the UK is a phenomenon that you can see elsewhere, where you've had big nationalised telecom providers. You see it elsewhere in Europe where the incumbent, i.e. the ex-public sector organisation appears to dominate what's happening for reasons that are in fact entirely understandable. Having said that, was the bidding process competitive enough? I think it's a pity from a public perspective that BT has been successful in all the contracts because I do think – and this is the lesson of what's been happening across the world – that real competition would have been to our advantage. Having said that, BT have been very skilful in the way in which they've conducted themselves in this competition. It is a very sophisticated and effective PLC.
There are suggestions that successful completion of the superfast broadband rollout may require additional funding in excess of the original £530m. Will extra money be needed and what kind of figures are we talking?
I don't actually know because we don't quite know how far the original amount of money is going to take the rollout of the broadband network. I think it's pretty clear that there are going to be areas, and with it significant numbers of people, who are going to be beyond the limits of what the money that's been put aside can achieve. In order then to complete the network, if that is what is going to happen, and I believe it should, how much extra will be required? I wouldn't like to hazard a guess.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the next year and what does the government need to do to further its agenda and meet the needs of the British public?
In the immediate future we've got to get this rollout driven forward cost-effectively and sensibly. I would like to see additional open access to that network because I believe that open access will be a driver of improved services and improved coverage. And I would like the government to really think carefully about how it wants access to the networks to be organised because I personally think that's one of the things we've not got quite right. The process of rollout is, as it were, in a state of flux and you can't change the strategy at this point. So let's get finished as fast as we can and as well as we can, then let's carry out an objective assessment of what is the best way forward to try and deal with the shortcomings. And it's not necessarily the fault of anybody. That will be apparent once it's been completed.
Lord Inglewood is Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications. He has served on the Committee since 2007 and became Chairman in 2011. He was a Minister in John Major's Government, serving as Deputy Chief Whip and later at the Department of National Heritage where he was responsible for broadcasting. Between 1989-1994 and 1999-2004 he was a Member of the European Parliament. He is Chairman of the CN Group, an independent local media business based in Carlisle.
Lord Inglewood will be speaking on 15 October at this year's NextGen 13 conference at Wembley (Conference takes place on 14-15 October). To register for the event, follow the links on the NextGen 13 website: http://www.nextgenevents.co.uk/events/nextgen-13.