Innovating with the Alt Nets: the future of Digital Infrastructure in the UK?
Two recent reports, the first from the Broadband Stakeholder Group and the second by Grant Shapps’ British Infrastructure Group, both highlight the importance of digital infrastructure for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in the UK. However, they take very different positions when it comes to addressing the future needs of SMEs and, in fact, the state of the UK’s digital infrastructure as it currently stands.
One thing that our report, Ultrafast Digital Infrastructure in the UK: are we missing a trick?, has in common with both of these documents is the emphasis on a new, evidence based solution to address the UK’s connectivity needs. Our cornerstone policy ask is for an experimental, demonstrator programme to assess the need for ultrafast speeds, and we acknowledge the role of innovative Alt Nets in delivering connections to some of the hardest to reach locations.
This post will explore the role of Alt Nets in developing the UK’s digital infrastructure, and suggest ways in which government, large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Alt Nets can collaborate to address some of the most stubborn infrastructure problems.
Why Alt Nets?
Alternative Network Providers, or Alt Nets, do not fit a single mould. When we talk about Alt Nets we often think of ventures like Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), where people in the community came together to build a broadband network, offering labour and time for free or with payment in kind. But there are many examples of innovative urban developments, at multiple spatial scales, and with varying scope.
In his Autumn Statement, George Osborne outlined the establishment of a new fund for Alternative Network Providers (more details were released in December last year). This welcome move heralds the age of the Alt Net, and signals the government’s willingness to embrace innovation.
A strong partnership between the state and commercial providers goes to the heart of the digital infrastructure policy we advocate. As such, we recommend a focus on promoting collaboration between Government and large ISPs - operating at scale and already owning infrastructure - and Alt Nets – whose small scale and innovative offerings could provide solutions to deeply entrenched infrastructure issues, like reaching the final 5 per cent to promote digital inclusion.
These projects would not only have great impacts on the local places they serve, but – supported appropriately – they would act as testbeds for the development of lower cost, locally–responsive provision in other parts of the country. One of the priorities of our proposed Demonstrator fund would be to explore which local characteristics these innovative models of delivery are best suited to.
What can we learn from Alt Nets?
Alt Nets are not just about tech innovation, they also offer innovative new ways of doing things.
We run through a few of the ways that Alt Nets are offering something different:
For many Alt Nets, scale is the name of the game – spanning small to large infrastructure projects. In some cases, Alt Nets simply aren’t big enough to complete a programme alone. On these occasions collaboration is key. The case of Peterborough CORE (from City Fibre, Peterborough Council and Serco) is a good example. This three-pronged collaboration has the potential to provide significant public good, and reach those businesses for which commercial leased line offerings were previously prohibitively expensive.
Local context - local needs
Sensitivity to the needs of a local area that Alt Nets can provide, through working in or through communities of people or businesses, enables the tailoring of a tech solution that is fit for purpose and place specific. Through working in a flexible and adaptive way, alt Nets like Hyperoptic (with a focus on upgrading infrastructure to buildings) can reduce the cost and disruption of installation, when retrofitting fibre cables in blocks of flats or high rises, for instance.
In other cases, the option of fixed line broadband is not available for communities or businesses that are particularly geographically isolated. For example, Unst in the Shetlands, where satellite technology from BeyonDSL (with government funding) has been used to provide connectivity – facilitating global relationships and business opportunities.
By developing demand-led solutions that optimise the use of existing technology (like copper) rather than entirely overhauling the previous generation of technology, Alt Nets can provide cost efficient and sustainable connectivity. The disruption caused by laying cables is often extensive. We also know that ‘civils’ costs make up around 80 per cent of total costs of providing connections – so reducing the need to dig up roads, and gain access to consumers’ homes will go a long way to drive down costs.
Approaching the idea of sustainability from another angle, many Alt Nets specialise in providing 'future proof' ultrafast connectivity. According to research from Communications Chambers for the Broadband Stakeholder Group, ultrafast speeds will cater for most SMEs until well beyond 2025. Their report finds that demand from 'high user' SMEs is not expected to exceed 41.1 Mbps over the next decade. As such, the demand-led ethos of many Alt Nets would suggest that consumer preference for ultrafast is driven by increased efficiency of routine tasks rather than the basic requirement to run applications.
The government is moving in the right direction with their announcement of a new Alt Net fund. Now it is down to business to find new ways to cater to the needs of consumers. As explained, Alt Nets are working in a number of ways to meet demand for connectivity and speed – through the use of satellites to reach remote locations, to ultrafast connections in high rise buildings.
There are a number of obstacles that government faces in striving to reach universal connectivity and offering ever higher speeds. Working experimentally with both Alt Nets and large ISPs, the government can promote the development of innovative solutions to address even the most testing of these challenges.