The original R100 was the most successful British airship of the 1930s, insofar as it never actually crashed and burned, unlike rather too many of its contemporaries. So let’s hope that’s a good omen, as the Scottish Government’s new broadband programme has been given the same name. In this case though, it stands for “Reach 100%”. By that, they mean provision of coverage of 100% of properties with “superfast” broadband by 2021.
To date, there’s been no public pronouncement on R100, merely some slightly vague commentary by Fergus Ewing and a obscure Prior Information Notice aimed at soliciting input from potential suppliers of stuff to something that hasn’t yet been defined. We’re therefore currently left guessing somewhat and, even on the basis of what little HAS been said, rather concerned.
So far though, the commitment seems to be to 100% coverage at the OFCOM definition of superfast as being 30Mb/s. In 2021. So we have yet another government initiative – and I make no distinction between Holyrood and Westminster here – that hasn’t historically and isn’t currently demonstrating any understanding that broadband is a continually moving target: to enable communities and enterprises to survive and flourish, we need an infrastructure that can maintain parity with global best practice into the future, not one that aims to hit an arbitrary target up to five years in the future, at which point it will be massively out of date.
Why does that matter? Simples: If you set a target of a given bandwidth at too low a threshold, suppliers (and yes, I mean you, BT) will simply install the cheapest and most profitable (to them) technology that will meet that target, and stuff the future. Then, in 3-5 years time, when we’ve once again fallen behind the level of performance that online services are designed for, we find that it’s going to cost another fortune to rip it all out again and replace it with something else that provides incremental improvements to a few places for another small number of years. That’s exactly how British (and Scottish) broadband policy has operated and why the current approach, of throwing largeish sums of public money at BT to install an obsolete technology that has no real route to the future, has crippled the UK and Scotland’s ability to operate competitively and will continue to do so into the future.
And that’s right where, if you consider the scenarios of a post-Brexit UK and/or a resultant independent Scotland, we’re going to need all the competitive advantage we can get.
You may also have noticed the repeated use of ‘policy’ in the above. That seems to be the root of the problem: we have policies, lots of policies. Unfortunately they don’t seem to be attached in any way to anything resembling a strategy: an understanding of and vision for the future of connectivity in the UK or Scotland. And, without a coherent strategy, you’re only ever going to end up with policies that are mutually contradictory and which create short-term sticking plasters for problems whilst actually creating – as noted above – more issues for the future.
Then, for all the idiocracy we’re repeatedly having to go through for CBS funding of our own project we, and other communities, are concerned that R100 will be used to yet again delay advanced community initiatives, possibly for several more years. In our own case, we’re at a critical stage of the project, have already had huge costs dumped on us by government agencies making inappropriate decisions without regard to the consequences. As a result we are struggling to keep going through the latest round of delays and impositions.
We’ve been hoping that R100 would start with a proper public consultation so that these issues could be addressed openly and transparently, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case. The member of the R100 team who attended the recent Scottish Rural Parliament meeting in Brechin made some optimistic noises, but when he was asked about the strategic framing of the project (ie setting out the national goals, reasons and players), his response was, “What’s strategic framing?”. Which didn’t exactly fill us with confidence.
But, on the principle that it might just be better to shout into a black hole and await an echo, however faint, than do nothing at all, we did make a submission to the R100 Prior Information Notice. Beyond a cursory acknowledgement, we have – depressingly, as expected – had no further feedback from them.
Below then, is the text of that submission, itself based both on our experience with our local project and on several decades of experience designing networks, technology and process with companies as diverse as Apple, AT&T, the UK government and Police Scotland. It’s written in more formal language than a blog post but, if you’re another community with similar issues, you may find some helpful ammunition here.
I’ll just note here that the original R100, whatever its theoretical merits, didn’t last long: it was scrapped after the series of disasters that befell similar programmes in Britain and the rest of the world. Let’s hope that its namesake proves more effective and useful.
Balquhidder Community Broadband Response to RFI PIN SEP256710: Scottish Government – Reaching 100% Superfast Broadband Programme
Version 1.1, 1 October 2016, Richard Harris
1 Summary of Issues
This document presents the response of Balquhidder Community Broadband (BCB) to this RFI. Although BCB does not currently intend to tender against the R100 procurement, BCB’s founders do have very significant experience of internet technologies, the market being addressed by R100, current processes and of the need for the effective framing of strategy, engagement and process. Our concern is to ensure that past and current mistakes are not repeated and that Scotland ends up with a robust, scaleable and genuinely enabling network infrastructure. Our concerns are summarised below, starting with three key elements:
Strategic Considerations: The RFI and such public statements as have so far been made about R100 do not define the strategic goals and framing for the procurement. Such information as is given is limited and suggests a inadequate level of framing and objective-setting. Every other UK public intervention in broadband provision to date has been crippled by restrictive assumptions, poverty of ambition and lack of understanding: precedence therefore suggests that R100 may suffer likewise. For example, goals so far publicly stated still express objectives in terms of delivered bandwidth, when this is very much an arbitrary figure and makes no acknowledgement of the most important metric: the provision of a scaleable, future proof infrastructure, where future service grade scaling is a contractual matter, driven by demand, not one requiring wholesale infrastructure replacement. The ‘future proof’ solicitation in the RFI does not define the term and this must be considered a significant shortcoming.
Market Engagement: Most (but by no means all) areas with poor broadband service provision are rural. They may also be remote. These also tend to be the more activist and self-motivated communities, many of which are either currently building or are prepared to deliver at least part of their local solution themselves, given even a modicum of support. Engaging with this model will significantly extend the value reach of any solution in certain areas. There is however no reference whatsoever in the RFI to engagement with communities or creating a hybrid “centre-out and edge-in” delivery model of the sort that has served other countries so well. This must be considered a major and limiting omission from current public statements about R100.
Process: The definition of process for delivery of R100 projects is critical: the lack of a delivery focus in current processes and the inhibiting influence of inter-agency dependencies has crippled even the imperfect goals of extended broadband delivery under DSSB and CBS. It is essential that this be simplified, made focussed on delivery and be inclusive of engagement with the ultimate beneficiaries from the start. To date, we have seen no sign of this.
2 Making R100 Effective
This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of issues for R100 to address, but addressing these robustly will help ensure that the outcome from the exercise is effective, maximises value from public investment, leverages commercial and community initiatives and reduces the need for yet more programmes in the future to address (or compound) the mistakes of the past. We apologise if this falls into the category of “teaching grandmother to suck eggs”, but assumptions of basic common sense and planning in previous initiatives have proven erroneous.
- Frame strategic objectives in terms of the long-term goals for an open national infrastructure, for the processes required to deliver it and for engagement with the communities who are the ultimate beneficiaries. Doing so will extend the reach of any given budget, will provide the level of agility required to meet the needs of a wide variety of end-user and will encourage the development of truly competitive alternatives to the monopoly incumbent.
- Model the economic uplift (not just cost/revenue of service) for any proposed development, subject to the final split of the procurement. Carrying this out at a local level has revealed very significant differences between technologies and service models in terms of delivered and sustained economic uplift.
- Adopt a demand model based on current multi-service, multi-device requirements, not on a demand model that was out of date two decades ago. The UK Broadband Stakeholder Group has done valuable work here, but their own model still appears to have significant gaps and underestimates emerging device and service ecosystems (not least being the impact of Cloud, AI, VR and IoT services).
- Define delivery not on the basis of average or peak Mb/s but on sustainable competitiveness at a high percentage of global best practice and against the fundamental requirement for continuous scaleability without wholesale infrastructure replacement – the rest will then follow.
- Audit the current and planned fibre backbone infrastructure for end-to-end capability against anticipated real demand and uptake.
- Model network capacity and incipient bottlenecks in that infrastructure as demand scales and, in procurement and funding, seek to mitigate these issues before they arise.
- Promote and support the development of redundancy in Internet Exchange (IX) services in Scotland. With a single and currently underused IX in Edinburgh, Scotland currently has little resilience or flexibility in its network routing and interchange.
- Co-ordinate with the UK NCSC to build a secure carrier-grade infrastructure within which wholesale services at every level can be provided.
- Define an architecture and geographical model for standardised open access edge points for network backhaul within effective and economic reach of every community in the country.
- Create genuinely open wholesale access to that network edge: the current model of engagement with Openreach and its infrastructure simply does not work.
- Encourage and support commercial, community and hybrid ‘last mile’ programmes to link to network edge points and to each other.
- Integrate R100 with the expansion of 4G mobile services and the forthcoming development of 5G services: the availability of fibre networks in proximity to mobile sites will have a significant effect on deployment costs of 4 and 5G services.
- For those few properties that can’t be addressed by terrestrial networks, lease a dedicated public service Ka-band satellite transponder or spot beam(s) to ensure that users aren’t more disadvantaged by satellite than they absolutely have to be: current satellite services simply do not work reliably, largely due to commercial oversell.
A PDF of the submission is available here.