Monday, 17 October 2011
Many thanks to TelecomPaper (and particularly Tim Poulus) for inviting me to address around 150 senior telecoms executives at the Breedband 2011 event in Den Haag last week. Telecom Paper had assembled a high calibre of speakers and delegates and I was very definitely on a high by the end of the day with narry a coffee shop in sight!
This blog post can be read at 5tth.blogspot.com
I went to Holland prepared to return feeling dispirited at the comparable state of British broadband to the Dutch fibre endeavours, which of course many of us are jealous of, and to discover just where it is we are going wrong. Because we blatantly are. Many of those with the answers I was seeking were at the event and sought me out after my presentation, giving plenty of opportunity to quiz them about FTTH in Holland, Finland, Eastern Europe and Russia. (Separate post on all that!)
However, it appears that across Europe there still remains a tricky problem to solve - rural broadband - and B4RN may be one of the solutions which can actually overcome telecom apathy, investor reluctance, government failures, and this strangely mistaken but firm belief that rural broadband cannot pay back, whether public, private or community monies are invested (or a combination thereof).
I spoke after the inimitable Costas Troulos (who spoke in depth about the NBN in Australia) and Gary Mensch of City Fibre Holdings, who developed the plans that CFH have for urban areas in Britain, including Bournemouth, York and 53 other UK cities. It was bordering on completely terrifying speaking after these two, but I am passionate about B4RN, and the business case and technical solution are rock solid now after all this time in Barry Forde's capable hands. Many noted that it was the first time they had been able to access the figures for rural gigabit FTTH so kudos to B4RN for making these publicly available to everyone on B4RN.org.uk.
One of the major points to note in Costas' speech for me was the uniform backhaul rates being aimed for in Oz. This is, of course, one of the key stumbling blocks in the UK - charging for backhaul by distance - and I think we would do well to look closely at the aims in Australia (where distances are far larger than here by several factors). Additionally, there were the possible problems with getting NBN onto a sound economic footing after the initial "euphoria" (read: spend), as well as how to persuade non new build property developers to get on board - also lessons we would do well to consider if we are serious about stretching the little money we have as far as possible. Costas' research into NBN Australia is well worth taking into account and I recommend delving more deeply.
From Gary's talk came an interesting discussion post-event about urban-rural tie ups and partnerships which highlighted for me how much BDUK need to get out of the way. The possibilities for syndicates and partnerships in the UK are now enormous, but not if no-one dares invest or deploy in case some publicly funded project comes over the hill shortly after. (This subject has been done to death and I am not doing it again here).
Whilst other speakers at Breedband 2011 covered the cloud, FTTH business cases, govt funding, structural separation (and a few other topics which were in Dutch so I only got the briefest overview of these from a selection of translators picked at random from around the hall - Jos from Routit in particular, thank you very much!), there was only myself and a speaker from the co-operative Rabobank who went into rural broadband - funding, technology, engagement etc - in any depth. The wide range of topics made for a fascinating day.
I was also lucky enough to meet another Fibre To The Farmer, and conversations about rural FTTH were never-ending throughout the day from suppliers, mobile, fixed, consultants and so on. My head was spinning by the end and attempts from a lovely old boy outside who thought I needed educating in Dutch smoking culture were always going to fall on deaf ears thanks to Telecom Paper.
Judging by the number of in-depth questions which filled the lunch break and post event borrel, plus the surprising number of business cards thrust into my hands, it would appear that those of us involved in B4RN have been correct in our assumption that people who live and work a long way from Lancashire are extremely interested in supporting this project. (For those who have not seen the decision made on 07/10/11, the share offer will be launched next month and all are welcome to invest, from £100 to £20,000, although we also plan to launch a micro-support scheme for those wanting to show support without purchasing shares - a sponsor would be welcomed for this scheme if anyone is interested, cost £500, please get in touch).
I did of course throw into my speech that shareholders would be welcomed from the delegates present, and when this resulted in hands being raised to receive the share offer documents when produced, and firm offers to purchase shares when speaking to delegates after my speech, it was heart warming. However, people also came forward with offers of CPE, backbone equipment, sharing of information/knowledge, and even the odd bit of shovel wielding. From all the conversations, it would seem there will now be a few Europeans with a vested interest in a small area of rural England that they had barely heard of before last week!
I rabbit on and on about how broadband affects all aspects of our lives and this support will have an additional add-on effect for Lancashire that all councils would do well to take into account. Especially if they are only planning solutions around USC or SFBB rather than true next generation access of 1Gbps and above. TOURISM. And in particular, technical tourism. Our B&Bs plus local shops, bars and restaurants are likely to all benefit now from visitors from abroad because people want to see first hand how B4RN is implemented, the effects and the changes to local economies and services of true next generation access in a rural setting, as well as to use B4RN as an exemplar to take home and replicate. All being well obviously, but even in the worst case scenario, there will be valuable lessons learned.
Tourism contributes a phenomenal sum as a sector, and whilst we are pretty dreadful at hospitality compared to many other countries, we could begin to focus on showcasing our technical and innovative skills to guests from afar. That is, if we are actually going to play catch up/leap frog and not completely screw everything up by introducing ultra high levels of rushed bureaucracy into the equation through BDUK etc, and permitting uninformed communities to make snap decisions without understanding the big picture consequences. I was deeply embarrassed to explain the BDUK process in the networking sessions. From afar, you suddenly realise how little it is likely to achieve because it is as far from a Big Society, joined-up thinking, logical approach as it seems you could get when you stand on the other side of the North Sea and try to explain it.
Luckily, the ins and outs of our political shenanigans were of less interest than B4RN, and whilst I wish I spoke better Dutch, there were few discussions that could not be translated by one of the many English speakers around me. The RaboBank presentation in particular showed that a co-operative bank can provide invaluable assistance in getting community projects onto a sound economic footing, whilst also recouping their loans, although we did have a rather lengthy discussion over coffee about the bank's need to understand where social capital fits into the equation when setting terms for repayment of cash!
The presentation by Jyrki of Finland resulted in a 2+2 moment that I will try to blog about in the near future, although I am not completely sure I can do it full credit as it really was one of those "You had to be there" kerching moments.
The Genexis CPE kit (see video and photos in next blog post) will be of interest to anyone looking at FTTH, and end to end solutions plus out of the box thinking were available throughout the event. Many became obvious only when people networked and my lack of Dutch meant I missed conversations around me that would, I'm sure, have been fascinating.
That highlighted for me the need for people like Neelie to pick up on promises made by her predecessors to hold and attend an event that brings together regulators, consumers, communities, telcos, suppliers etc to make magical things happen by involving people from across the EU. It is simply no good now to have events in EU which are always poorly attended by those who most need to be heard or to listen. Which far too frequently, sadly, includes communities and consumers. And Brits. (We really do need to get out more).
Telecom Paper and others are now considering a proposal to hold such an event which drags a few Brits (kicking and screaming) across to mainland Europe to hear how things are being done in other countries and rural areas, and to share some of the best practice and innovative thinking which is coming out of the UK despite the best efforts of the telcos and government to undermine them. (Sorry, but it has to be said. And said again).
An EU wide understanding of how to deliver the very best in rural broadband (none of this half-assed USC malarkey) should, if the events I have attended in the EU recently give any indication, be a reasonably simple matter to resolve if the subject is given sufficient space on the agenda and made the priority it must become.
And the Big Society is allowed to play a part.
By this I mean that those who believe their salaries and exalted position give them a status, that at times is undeserved, acquire ears. As well as a level of humility that permits those at grassroots the chance to be heard and understood so that joint ventures become the order of the day.
The appetite to make rural broadband a reality is there, the contacts exist between nations, suppliers, communities, consumers, fixed and mobile etc, and the business case and economic and social value is slowly but surely becoming too apparent to miss. FiWi Pie could easily become dish of the day on the menu if a few people listen to those waiting on.