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Of competition, rent seeking and the UK government broadband project BDUK

A comment piece over at the Guardian has compelled me to write my first post on this fair blog. I have been mulling over the idea about writing something about rent seeking and fixed lined broadband rollout in the UK for some time, but BT’s great broadband scam has pushed me over the edge finally.

The Guardian writer blames the market, competition and Margaret Thatcher for the fact that BT has won all of the government contracts to build fixed line broadband in the UK.Though most Guardian writers blame this triumvirate for most things, this writer makes a tenuous link between BT and competition ultimately calling for the renationalisation of broadband in this country. (He sounds much like Susan Crawford over in the US, but that is a post for another time) But what he gets so very wrong about blaming competition for the inability for the government to rollout broadband is that it is BT’s rent seeking behaviour coupled with a centrally planned project that has contributed to the so far unsuccessful UK broadband rollout project called BDUK.

There are so many reasons that BDUK has not succeeded that it hard to know where to begin. But for the purpose of this post it is important to understand that the broadband targets and rules for entering into procurement as a provider changed over the course of the last three years. Initially, the project was to provide next generation access (NGA) to 100% of the UK by 2015 and now it may only succeed in delivering 90% by 2017. Fibre to the home (FTTH) was the initial target and eventually fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) became the final and less optimal solution. The regional areas that divide up the entire BDUK project into smaller, sub-project areas were far too small to achieve economies of scale. The list goes on, but changeable rules against which companies and consortia were to pitch to be on the ‘approved’ list meant only risk and uncertainty for those businesses. In the end only BT survived and thus BT became the monopolist provider.

But if I ran BT I would make sure that I was the only procurer on that list through whatever means possible, including rent seeking. And that is precisely what they did. OFCOM, the telecoms regulator, DCMS, the department responsible for BDUK and BT have a cosy relationship with advisors and consultants making the rounds in contracts and positions among all three. But BT has a massive incentive to ensure that their fixed line broadband network became the only networked used to rollout new broadband services. If other vendors were chosen for BDUK then this old network, made up of traditional copper lines and some fibre, would be completely bypassed thereby rendering the network useless. Quite high stakes if you are that behemoth BT. Even an outsider’s attempt to petition DCMS to include wireless in its definition of ‘next generation access’ failed because it would mean using a new and probably non-BT network. Not allowing wireless as one of many ways to achieve rural broadband access is essentially absurd in this day in age. But the BDUK project stipulated only fixed line Internet access at delivery.

So while we do indeed have competition in urban areas and many rural areas for broadband access services (as most services like TalkTalk rent BT lines at wholesale prices) we have very little competition in broadband infrastructure and that is an important difference. BT has played their cards well in a centrally planned system created by civil servants who have made policy in order to achieve the delivery of fixed line broadband Internet access. No one person is to blame, but through bad policy making, EU regulations, rent seeking by BT, and no comprehensive oversight, we have a project that will be delivered well over time and budget and paid for by the taxpayer. True competition in services, diversified Internet access types, and infrastructure would have delivered far richer choices. Currently BDUK remains Hayek’s worst nightmare.