Time and again in recent weeks the pleas from European business leaders (and particularly here in the UK) for an end to uncertainty – or at least less of a policy vacuum – might have seemed quite the opposite of what might have been expected from our supposedly mighty risk-takers.
Any fleeting signs of stability have momentarily bolstered stock markets and smoothed exchange rate readjustments and yet it is ‘disruption’ we are oft told that is the golden characteristic of progressive, thrusting, opportunistic and innovative times.
This apparent contradiction reveals another truth. Businesses like to disrupt others but otherwise dislike being disrupted – and larger business with more at stake like it even less. Yes, they’ll welcome innovation – but only on their own terms. And that is, of course, why monopoly power is so dangerously regressive.
Even, as in the case of BT’s Openreach, where the threat of regulatory changes looms large, uncertainty can invoke the sort of paralysis that borders on an existential crisis. No wonder, then, that when interviewed CEO Clive Selley is sounding more like Macbeth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” There is no standing still in business and confidence is essential fuel. Do nothing and nothing happens.
But his organisation’s current uncertainty exists only because of the ever-widening gap between national economic imperatives (championed by the regulator in lieu of government) and the resistance of an incumbent determined to extract shareholder value from legacy assets.
Put simply (though to be fair it is far from simple) Openreach can see little investment rationale in providing everyone with future-proofed broadband services. They would much rather stretch the capability of their existing copper assets and hope that demand for capacity can be constrained.
On the other hand, those who argue (in the national interest) for a future-proofed infrastructure (inevitably with vastly greater use of fibre) point to the wider creative constraints of underperforming connectivity. Download speeds are, they’d say, far less important than upload speeds, low latency, minimal packet loss, greater reliability and vastly lower operational costs.
And it is these factors that are now calling time on strategies that were decided well over a decade ago and based on dodgy economics. Fibre was said to be inordinately expensive. It was said many times over and that mantra became embedded in investors’ minds. And it was wrong. And facing up to that truth is awkward. Not perhaps as awkward as Brexit but, like that referendum, the choice has been determined by those whose delusions are most believed.
Now, more than ever, the UK needs to rethink the parameters around digital infrastructure investment. We applaud the creative industries and the clever clogs beavering away developing new services, cutting costs and making lives easier – particularly in the public sector. But all that cleverness is nothing without affordable underlying future-proofed connectivity.
Yes, in some places, gradually, we can find signs of a smarter approach. Yes, we can see that sharp, thoroughly commercial, minds have cracked the challenges of doing what was previously dismissed as not financially viable. All that remains is for incumbents to recognize the new realities or suffer the consequences.
Meanwhile, leastways until our incoming Digital Minister grasps the issues, the UK will muddle through with a certain uncertainty.