UK Government report says UK Government has no policy on emerging technologies. This could be a mistake

via Flickr © KamiPhuc (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © KamiPhuc (CC BY 2.0)

  •  Lack of focus and urgency puts timely and successful implementation of AI and quantum computing in jeopardy 
  • There must be no repeat of Huawei debacle and resulting "supplier squeeze" 
  • Meanwhile, in 2021, the 2010-2015 Superfast Broadband programme is adjudged a success
  • It did represent  "Value for Money" but, given the hype, it was a rather modest initiative

In the early days of February, while it is still deep midwinter for the locked-down and put upon general population of the UK, the sap is rising fast in the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and Britain is enjoying (if that's the right word) a sudden burst of activity on the part of that august body. A new report to the effect that the country will find itself out on a limb technology-wise unless the erratic antics on the part of the body politic can focus, just a little bit for just a wee while, on devising and articulating a strategy on emerging technologies.

Having been pressured to toe the policy line of the Trump administration in the US vis à vis Huawei, last year the Johnson administration made one of it's now routine screaming, tyre-burning U-turns and decided to remove all equipment provided by the Chinese company from the national network - well by 2027 anyway.

The Commons Committee says the decision, taken on the grounds of national security, and with barely an acknowledged apprehensive glance over the shoulder at the glowering Trump and concerns about the ramifications of US economic sanctions on China, leaves the UK "over-reliant" on a small coterie of comms technology vendors, especially where 5G is concerned.

No mention is made of the fact that prior to the change of policy the UK was massively committed to and reliant upon Huawei almost to the exclusion of every other vendor despite of the company's known intimate ties to the Chinese government and ever mounting evidence that it was involved compromising state and industrial security by hacking into and spying on UK communications.

The report says the government's response to the removal of Huawei from UK networks and the lack of a coherent subsequent strategy to manage future dealings with those non-Chinese companies that are taking its place is tardy, inconsistent and unfocused. It warns that, as a result, Britain could well find itself lagging in the implementation and application of key emerging technologies such as AI and quantum computing.

The reports adds that the new strategy must be designed to avoid any possible repeat of the "supplier squeeze" occasioned by over-reliance on Huawei and to keep options open about which vendors to use as 5G gets closer to ubiquitous commercial deployment.

The chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells said,  "A lack of strategic foresight in 5G has seen the UK become dependent on only two vendors for a crucial technology. We must learn from this experience to avoid making our economy and security vulnerable from a lack of acceptable alternatives in emerging technologies.As technologies develop at an ever faster rate, more time must not be lost."

The government's current "5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy" is a three-pronged approach designed to support incumbent suppliers, attracting new suppliers into the UK market and "accelerating the development and deployment of open-interface solutions." The intent is "to achieve all three so that we are never again dependent on a small number of suppliers." 

The Committee, whilst by no means dismissive of  open standards-based solutions adds the caveat that they cannot, on their own, be "a silver bullet" able to solve all problems and therefore other options must be considered. The report presses the government to come up with and commit to a comprehensive risk-assessment and action plan by the end of this year. Furthermore, it calls upon the government to get into the driving seat and do a lot more actively to manage R&D initiatives and programmes and push and encourage the telecoms and IT industries to meet long-term objectives as well as short-term aspirations. 

Finally, and very importantly, the report stresses the need to co-operate on comms policies and strategies with allies and "like-minded countries" to ensure real divergences in the equipment market and end reliance on just one or two companies (as is the current case with 5G following the defenestration of Huawei). 

Far too wide a definition of what constitutes "superfast"

Meanwhile, another new report, "Superfast Broadband Programme Evaluation Key Benefits and Impacts" written this time by Ipsos MORI, the London-headquartered global market research organisation on behalf of the UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. delivers a conclusion that will raise eyebrows in some quarters.

It finds that the so-called "Superfast Broadband" policy that was in place during the time of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government (between May 2010 and May 2015) was a success and "value for money". Many will venture to disagree with that, especially in rural and remote areas where, in 2021, even basic broadband Internet access can be as rare as hens teeth.

More than 90 per cent of the project was handed over, lock, stock and barrel, to the UK's incumbent telco, BT and it's now semi-detached subsidiary Openreach. Back in the time of the coalition government BT had a well-deserved reputation for what might best be described as a laid-back attitude to the provision of broadband to rural parts of the country. Indeed BT management's leisurely approach to getting things done made the southern European concept of 'mañana' seem altogether too much like a World War II "Action This Day... or Else!" memo from Winston Churchill.

Meanwhile, the government's definition of "Superfast" broadband was wide enough to drive a combine harvester through given that download speeds of anywhere in a range between 30Mbps and 300Mbps fell within the acceptable limits. The purpose of the initiative was to provide broadband to five and a half million homes and businesses that were either still on dial-up connectivity or suffering dismal over-the-hills-and-far-away from the local exchange ADSL service.

The Ipsos MORI report focuses on the postcodes that were designated as deserving of subsidised improved network access between 2012 (two years into the coalition government) and 2018 (three years after it ended) and looks at the benefits that accrued. They weren't that impressive but they were improvements with unemployment falling, job opportunities rising and vacancies up by 0.6 per cent as a direct result of better broadband access. Productivity per worker also increased, but only by 0.4 per cent, while hourly wage rates rose by 0.7 per cent. The value of domestic properties in the postcodes with access to subsidised broadband services also rose by between £1, 700 and £3,500.

It is estimated that, in total, the Superfast Broadband policy resulted in £1.1 billion-worth of increased productivity between 2012 and the end of 2018. This was achieved at the price of £815 million drawn from public taxation while the government calculations were that it would cost £1.9 billion, so it came in well under budget. Indeed, in terms of cost/benefit analysisit is calculated that economic improvements in a range between £2,70 and £3.80 accrues as a result of each £1 of government spending.

The report also shows that broadband access speeds did get better as a result of the programme. On average, download speeds went from 6.2Mbps to 16.9Mbps and upstream speeds increased from 0.9Mbps to 3.9Mbps. That's the headline figures, but, as Ipsos MORI points out, they might be deceptive because the speed of improvements achieved through upgrades and new deployments carried out by companies that were not part of the Superfast programmes may have warped the figures. Meanwhile, the government recently curtailed what it had earlier pledged to spend on the deployment on its gigabit access programme.

The report concludes that the "national economic impacts represent a real increase in economic activity that would not have occurred in absence of the Superfast programme at the national level." Which is absolutely true. However, the improvements have been incremental, partial and incomplete and whether those results could have been better with a different approach and BT being given a lesser share of the project and other independent companies getting more is now a moot point. As Star Trek's Mr. Spock, taking a view from the perspective of the 23rd Century might say, "It was broadband Jim, but not as we know it." Exactly the same sentiment applies in 2021.

Anyway, it's water under the bridge. The coalition government is ancient history from a different world. Since then, the former Prime Minister David Cameron spent a lot years and missed a lot of deadlines writing his autobiography/apologia in a bespoke, handmade £25,000 metal wheeled mobile shepherd's hut at the bottom of his Cotswold garden while his deputy, Nick Clegg, is now Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook and a very well paid mouthpiece for that nice young Mr. Zuckerberg.  Meanwhile, far too many rural areas in the UK still don't have anything like fast broadband. Like they say, you couldn't make it up.

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