Total Telecom's third annual Connected Britain took place in London this week against the backdrop of a hung parliament, question marks over Brexit, and backslapping in the EU thanks to the long-awaited abolition of retail roaming charges.
Telcos, public and private enterprises, central and local government, opposition politicians, community groups, and regulator Ofcom were all in attendance and in broad agreement that if the U.K. is to remain globally-competitive after Brexit – which after the result of the snap election is something of an open question – then it needs world-class connectivity.
"The U.K. does need to have that ambition for the future, comparing ourselves to the best-in-class globally," insisted Steve Unger, group director at Ofcom.
There was also more support for the argument that world-class connectivity means rolling out fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) and at a push Gigabit cable, and that anything less than this – copper upgrades such as vectored VDSL and G.fast – should be considered a useful interim step along the road to 'full fibre', as it is increasingly called.
There was also an understanding that widespread availability of fibre is needed for backhauling the countless small cells that are expected to be deployed over the coming decade as the industry marches inexorably towards 5G.
"To be clear: I am a big fan of full fibre," said Openreach CEO Clive Selley, in a fireside chat with telecoms analyst Matt Howett.
"I've spent a lot of time over the last 12 months figuring out how to deploy it much more efficiently than we've done in the past, so we are honing our techniques, and we are now going to consult our CP partners in order to build a business case for what I'm hoping will be a very sizeable footprint that we will deploy across the U.K."
When the consultation was announced in May, Openreach said it aims to deploy FTTP to 10 million premises by 2025, which is a big step up from the previous target of 2 million by 2020.
Rolling out FTTP will take time though, so in concert with that effort, "deploying G.fast is a no-brainer," Selley said. "It ties with the existing infrastructure that we've built for VDSL and it can give a lot of people ultrafast speeds in a very quick deployment timeframe and at a decent price point."
The altnets were out in force at Connected Britain as well, and they are quickly establishing their credibility as rivals to the incumbent in the areas in which they operate.
"The alternative infrastructure providers are starting to do more – growing or getting financing in – so I think we're on the verge of getting a completely changing environment," said Dana Tobak, CEO of altnet Hyperoptic, which offers FTTP to multi-dwelling units (MDUs).
However, while there was consensus on where the U.K. needs to get to, there were notable differences in opinions about how it gets there, and whether its ambitions are, well, ambitious enough.
"Competition has clearly not delivered everything that's been required in terms of a competitive rollout of infrastructure throughout the geography of this country," said Alex Blowers, head of regulatory affairs at altnet CityFibre, during a panel session on day two. "I would also argue that the competition model that we've been adopting has yet to deliver what we require in terms of a fit-for-purpose infrastructure in urban areas."
One measure to improve coverage, the 10-Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO), received mixed reviews.
Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn, shadow minister for business, energy and industrial strategy, and shadow minister for international trade, said 10 Mbps betrayed an inherent lack of ambition. He proposed in February that it be raised to 30 Mbps; however, the government rejected the amendment.
"Everybody needs to participate in digital Britain, so to my mind, 10 Mbps, 30 Mbps – it's all a bit academic. What we need is everybody participating and therefore rolling out more superfast [broadband] has been a key agenda item for me," said Openreach's Selley.
"There has to be transparency and clarity around the USO," said Simon Pilsbury, regulation director, TalkTalk. He argued that if designed properly, it could lead to the investment in, and deployment of new infrastructure by competitive players that would have an incentive to upgrade the headline speeds of the USO network.
"One of the potential problems with the USO is that it's done in some smoke-filled, back-room deal, where no one really understands how it's being funded...and all of the investment is undertaken by Openreach. I don't think that would be the best way forward for the USO. The USO really has to be used as a mechanism for increasing competition," Pilsbury said.
Explaining the thinking behind the USO, Ofcom's Unger said digital divides "are just no longer acceptable in a modern, digital society.
"There are parts of the country where even a monopoly won't find it profitable to build. That's where you have the USO as the solution."
Unger said that "wherever possible, the first best option will be competition between different providers."
With that in mind, he reiterated that Ofcom is making a shift from regulating access to Openreach's infrastructure to rules that encourage more investment in end-to-end infrastructure by other players.
"That is more likely to drive innovation, that is more likely to drive competition in the underlying quality of the networks," he said.
That informed Ofcom's thinking behind its proposal to cap the wholesale price of 40-Mbps broadband but not higher-speed services, such as Openreach's upcoming G.fast service. Doing this, the watchdog claims, will incentivise investment in ultrafast networks by all players.
However, like the USO, the reaction was mixed. CityFibre welcomed the move to not regulate higher-speed services, while the likes of Openreach said price intervention creates uncertainty about ROI, and can act as a disincentive to investment.
"Not universally popular, but that's life as a regulator," Unger said.
For Arqiva CEO Simon Beresford-Wylie, it is less about the popularity of regulations, and more about the speed in which they are implemented when it comes to Britain remaining competitive in terms of broadband infrastructure.
"We've got a long way to go," he said, not just in FTTP deployment, but also in ramping up the U.K.'s 5G ambitions so that it is in the first wave of 10-15 countries to actually launch 5G services.
He criticised the Conservative Party's election manifesto, which said it aims to deploy 5G to most of the population by 2027.
"That is not the right aspiration," Beresford-Wylie said. "We need to have 5G…otherwise the competitive position of this country will drift further away."
It is clear based on the tone of discussion at this year's Connected Britain that the country is approaching a crossroads in its journey towards ultrafast network deployment, and that we will soon know whether it is destination will be either a world-class market for connectivity, or a broadband backwater.
With that in mind, Connected Britain 2018 promises to be yuge! Join Total Telecom at London's Business Design Centre to see just how yuge it is!