The battle for London’s broadband vote: How are the Mayoral candidates responding to the rising tide of discontent?

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On April 1st the Daily Mail published a map of UK broadband speeds under the headline “How fast is your broadband” and said that 1.5 million users still have “below minimum” speeds. Unfortunately it was not an April Fool Joke. Meanwhile O2 has just called for a rebalancing of UK network investment outside London and the South East Observant readers may, however, have noted that, in the Daily Mail map, much of Inner London was “yellow” (the colour of slow speed Britain. On the same day we saw press cover for an FISP study calling for the new mayor of London to take drastic action because over a million Londoners are unhappy with their broadband speeds and only a third believe London has the capacity to meet future needs.

Before commenting on the FISP analysis and recommendations it may be as well to remind readers of what the Mayoral candidates have said. In February at a hustings on their technology policies, several of the candidates took the opportunity to comment on broadband. After praising Boris Johnson for investing in physical infrastructure over his time in power, Zac Goldsmith said “investing in superfast broadband is now equally important for the next mayor. I would invest in broadband to make it the fourth utility.” Sadiq Khan (Labour) promised to hire a chief digital officer and use their knowledge to the fullest in devising a London plan that would require digital infrastructure. Caroline Pidgeon (Libdem) made similar comments: “We have to consider broadband a utility and shouldn’t settle for lack of access. As part of any planning application in London, new buildings should require super fast broadband,” Peter Whittle of UKIP echoed her comments on investment in fast internet connections and said we should “eliminate not spots in London broadband”. Sian Berry (Green) went further “As the only candidate to have worked for a tech company, I understand the issues this industry faces. This means tackling lack of access to office space, superfast broadband and planning. I support calls to make public space available for mobile broadband infrastructure, as we did in Camden.”

In his business manifesto Zac Goldsmith goes into more detail and commits to: “work with the boroughs to ensure that broadband becomes the fourth utility use Transport for London’s 560 km network to lay cables rapidly expanding London’s superfast broadband network and also providing mobile signal and faster broadband on the tube ask commercial premises broadband providers and local authorities to agree a standard two page [wayleave] document to tackle unacceptable delay in delivering fibre optic broadband service across London “ensure new build property is built “broadband ready” with the cabling ducts needed for broadband to easily connect to the premises.”

Meanwhile Sadiq Khan has pledged to: “Improve our connectivity, making it a priority to tackle London’s ‘notspots’, ensuring better access to public-sector property for digital infrastructure, and treating digital infrastructure with the same status as other key public utilities. Broker a deal between providers and local authorities to provide better access to public property and land for the installation of broadband infrastructure.”

I will not, in this blog, comment on candidates other technology related pledges save to say the everyone seems to pledge a Chief Digital/Data Officer who will sprinkle the magic pixie dust of “data analytics” over their policies.

The FISP press release warns that “London’s broadband infrastructure is so poor it threatens the capital’s ability to compete with other global cities in the future. [the scale of discontent demonstrates that the market had] …failed businesses and consumers when it came to providing the infrastructure needed to provide high-speed, future-proofed broadband services, which are already up and running in dozens of cities around the world.” It then calls on the “mayoral candidates to create a new infrastructure agency – Digital for Londoners (DfL) – dedicated to making London a ‘Gigabit City’ by 2020 …download and upload speeds of 1,000 megabits per second … first step towards the Institute of Directors’ call for 10 Gigabit services by 2030 and is essential for future 5G mobile plans.”

FISP also says “there are more than 100 Gigabit operations worldwide and, across Europe, countries and capital cities competing for investment with London have both future-proofed fibre connections and access to gigabit speeds. In the UK more than 20 cities are already on track for Gigabit City status but London is not amongst them. “

ISP Review is critical of the FISP proposal to create a “Digital for Londoners Agency” to achieve “gigabit capabilities”, pointing out that most of those “on track for Gigabit City status” in the UK are “merely” building dark fibre networks to serve the local authority needs plus commercials complexes and business parks. What is It does not point out, however, is that London already has several such networks, including those run by UK players like Colt and Venus and US players like Hibernia and Zayo to serve more than 70 co-location centres and meet the needs the needs of London’s fintech and multi-media communities. Some of these are now being extended to provide the backhaul to serve housing complexes and shopping malls Few of the UK’s would-be “smart cities” yet have more than one or two co-location centres (essential to the local internet exchanges that are the beating heart of truly smart communities), although Edinburgh has 3, Milton Keynes has 6, Leeds has 9 and Manchester has 20.

The question for the FISP authors is “What will an Agency add, other than overheads and delay, to what the candidates are already planning?”. There is no reference in the FISP report to the core need, identified by Zac Goldsmith, of working with the London boroughs to address access and wayleave arrangements. Zac also commits to making the TfL network available. Meanwhile Sadiq Khan refers, more generally, to brokering a deal to provide better access to public land and property.

In fact a consortium of London boroughs and property owners is already making serious progress with regard to common access and wayleave agreements. The draft document, designed to cover the complex needs of multi-tenanted office, retail and housing complexes, is rather longer than 2 pages, but may well be ready for immediate adoption by who-ever wins on May 5th .

There is also the question of whether the need is for the Mayor to “Direct infrastructure providers and investors towards long-term objectives” or, rather harder in practice, to remove the planning and regulatory obstacles in the way of those who wish to co-operate in meeting the needs of Londoners now, in ways that will also make it easier to meet their evolving needs over the next couple of decades.

Either way an “agency” might be helpful, but its terms of reference and the mind-set of those running it would need to be very different.

“Direction” implies jobs for consultants and planners. “Co-operation” implies budgets for events and hospitality at which planners agree to work alongside property companies and network builders and operators to make investment in London’s broadband infrastructure more attractive to fund managers and their clients.

I have therefore invited one of the co-authors of the FISP report, to a joint meeting (which I am helping arrange) of the Digital Policy Alliance and the Wired Westminster group to discuss building on the work to date in ways that meet the needs for those who are already planning capacity for the needs of 2025 and 2030, not just 2020. The theme is “We are only going to do this once” v. “The only constant is change”.

The underlying problem and/or constraint is how to enable and encourage those who will benefit most and/or are looking for long term investment opportunities. That may entail addressing the delay, cost and risk caused by political, planning and regulatory uncertainty and predatory behavior. But it is unclear whether the best approach is to agree to something (but what?) or to agree to do nothing – and allow market forces to work their magic, now that we have a regulator who appears to have rediscovered what they are there to do.

As I said at the end of my blog on the opportunity of the pre-referendum policy purdah my role is to bring the players together and leave them to get on with it.