By Barney Lane, Head of Regulation at Colt
In July of this year, the leaders of the G20 nations met in Germany to consider the world’s major economic challenges.
The leaders not only recognised digital transformation as a driving force of economic growth, they also acknowledged the important role that SMEs and start-ups play in the development of a range of new and innovative business models.
The very next month, the UK Government formally launched its Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund (DIFF) – £400 million of Government money looking to stimulate more than £1 billion of investment in the UK’s fibre network.
To complete the hat-trick of announcements, the UK’s Minister of State for Digital announced in September the location of the first six pilot full-fibre projects in a £10m spending commitment.
But while I welcome the UK Government commitment – and believe passionately in the investment in the UK’s fibre infrastructure – I question whether enough is being done to ensure that the UK is really open for business.
There is no doubt that in the UK, in infrastructure terms, BT and Openreach hold the position of market strength and have, perhaps not surprisingly, sought to use that position as a barrier to other entrants.
Indeed, Ofcom’s report last year on the UK’s national infrastructure not only called for greater separation of BT and Openreach; it also said that the best support for innovation in ultrafast broadband networks would be to give BT’s competitors improved access to its Openreach infrastructure.
I’d go further than that – I would say that the single most effective tool that the UK government has to really boost investment in the fibre network is not to offer the carrot of matching or supporting funding, but rather to open up Openreach’s infrastructure.
Equality of access for business operators to the cabling ducts that the former national operator and its network access division currently own, and operate, would immediately stimulate investment.
As a business operator, we know that all the fibre routes we would like to deploy are already passed by Openreach’s tightly guarded ducts.
Of course, Openreach would like to maintain its market advantage - who wouldn’t? - but the biggest reward for the businesses and SMEs identified by the G20 leaders will come from greater competition to deliver services.
Many British businesses will need to undergo a digital transformation if they are to maintain or improve their access to global marketplaces in a post-Brexit economy.
That transformation demands improved, fibre connectivity.
It follows that competition to deliver that connectivity to them will result in improved services and better value for money.
What’s more, encouraging business operators to roll-out widespread fibre connectivity will have knock-on benefits for the wider communities that can feed off the newly established fibre infrastructure.
This is a win-win situation for the Government and UK business.
Forcing open access to the Openreach network will stimulate investment in the UK’s fibre network.
It will attract outside investors, transform UK businesses, and possibly - by reducing the need for public funding for business infrastructure - enable additional Government investment in FTTH projects.
The G20 nations recognise the need for business network development to stimulate economic growth.
The world leaders said they aimed to create favourable conditions for the development of the digital economy.
What’s more they also recognised the need to ensure effective competition to foster investment and innovation.
In the UK, the Government could achieve a lot of those objectives by opening up the Openreach network.
The G20 nations are motivated to drive global digital trade, and the UK Government’s DIFF commitment is designed to set the stage for British business success.
But we must also ensure that British business - and British suppliers to those businesses – are given full and equal access in order to play their part in the country’s digital transformation.