Philip Hammond's Autumn Statement digital infrastructure plans need a serious rethink

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Philip Hammond's Autumn Statement digital infrastructure plans need a serious rethink

Peter Cochrane, ex-CTO of BT, thinks the government is barking up the wrong tree with 5G

Every year, Christmas advertising and spending seems to get earlier and this year Chancellor Phillip Hammond has blown the kick off whistle early with a gift of £1bn for FTTP broadband.

This is optical fibre direct to office and home with no copper, and hopefully no electronics in the path.

But what does this mean, and how important a move is it? The previous BDUK ‘big bang' investment turned out to be a ‘little pop', with BT taking the bulk of the money to keep its old copper network going whilst avoiding the ‘Full Monty' of FTTP.

Big, ugly, hot and noisy cabinets full of electronics on street corners unable to serve the needs of the population were the result. Up to 80Mbit/s and homes passed are not statements of service delivered, more a wishful aspiration and adverting diversion!

So what is this new investment going to do? First; BT is precluded from accessing any of this money as it is focused on small players - the independent FTTP companies. And in an ideal world, we would see a proportion assigned to community networks.

Make no doubt about it - the UK is in really bad broadband and mobile shape, and the two are inextricably linked. Even against the rest of Europe, the UK is way behind the majority. Despite all the advertising and BS, much of the country including cities, towns and rural areas lack the basics of broadband and have no access to 3G mobile, let alone 4G.

The average broadband speed in London is one third of that in Paris for example, and if you drive the A14, A12, A1 or take the Norwich to London train, for example, the service is patchy at best. And just try getting 4G in London. Best of luck with that!

What's the real fast data solution? Not 5G

So, what to do? First we need to ask: How do we get the biggest bang per £££?

Most importantly, we should stop thinking of 5G in terms of 3 and 4G - it is nothing like! It is not a product - there no standards agreed, and none will appear for at least three years, and when they do they will not be global.

There will be at lease three different standards for North America, the EU and SEA - and the likelihood is that even more will emerge.

Right now, 5G is a bunch of ideas, concepts and aspirations demanding over 10 times more towers than our patchy 3G service currently enjoys. Verizon and ATT et. al are going it early and alone, with trials based on Wi-Fi technologies.

So my advice is: Get on with what we so desperately need - focus the investments on FTTP and get the mobile operators to share base stations to enable exist-ing 3/4G services!

There are numerous small companies and startups as well as established companies that could leverage any investment to a greater degree than any BDUK past investment. I think of City Fibre Holdings, GigaClear, and CountyBroadBand for example as those typical of taking £1 and extracting over £2 of value. And than of course there is the community networks line B4RN in Lancashire, who has self-funded and self-installed over 550 miles of cable and connected 33 villages, giving homes a basic 1Gbit/s service.

Give folks like this £1 and they'll leverage over £10 of value. And when FTTP is installed, add a 3/4/5G terminal at the end of each fibre, make it open and accessible to all carriers, add open Wi-Fi too - then you have an enabled and empowered society. It really isn't rocket science, although it does seem beyond the copper mind sets of the incumbents!

The key here are the choices. So here are a few: Prize FTTP well above 5G. Do not opt for BPON (broadband passive optical network) and GPON (Gigabit broadband passive optical network).

Instead, invest in fibre rich point-to-point networks - optical fibre is now dirt cheap and by comparison electronics is expensive - so no need to save on the fibre - that thinking is a legacy from the 1980s and 1990s.

The government should apportion that £1bn in something like the following ratio: Established (non-BT) FTTP companies should get around £500m. Startup FTTP companies (with some track record, obviously) should be awarded £300m. Community FTTP operations should receive the remaining £200m. Then stand back and watch the country transform!

However: One word of warning. For this to be a roaring success we need this £1bn (or morem please) for the next 10 years if we are to reach every home, office, business, school and hospital.

And here is an outcome forecast; just watch BT respond by changing course to start offering FTTP and not copper-based pseudo fibre services at Morse Key rates! This would all be a big win win for the UK overall - with every £1bn invested returning over £3Bn in new GDP earned.

Peter Cochrane OBE is an ex-CTO of BT who now works as a consultant who focuses on solving problems and improving the world through the application of technology

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