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November 24, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:58am

Mobile, satellite & fixed convergence: defining the UK Government’s role

Analysis: Three and ViaSat call on UK Government to ensure the right regulatory climate.

By Alexander Sword

As consumers come to expect ubiquitous connectivity on their devices (and have little interest in how this is provided), providers are accepting that there is no one form of network that can provide coverage in every situation.

How does convergence work in practice, in the UK for example? According to a panel event by the Broadband Stakeholder Group featuring a participant from each of the three different main types of network, fixed, satellite and cellular, it is the government that now needs to step in to facilitate convergence.


Competition at the wholesale level

Simon Miller of Three, representing the cellular side of the three network categories, expressed concerns over the existing regulatory and governmental landscape.

"To carry the high volume of data, although it’s dependent on our physical network we also need to use wi-fi offload. We also need to look at converged solutions to continue to deliver that.

"The problem is presented by that is exactly the same as the problem that faced us back when we launched: it’s incredibly difficult for innovative infrastructure offers to enter the UK market because of regulatory, competitive and system bottlenecks that characterise it."

Miller made what seemed to be a veiled reference to the position of BT in the world of converged networks. The UK’s biggest landline and broadband provider is set to buy EE, the UK’s biggest mobile provider, in a deal that will close next year.

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"It’s not just about convergence of networks, it’s about how the convergence of service impacts the ability of other providers to build and operate converged networks.

"There are clear advantages in the emergence of converged service offers, and they clearly benefit consumers, but they are also not universally a good thing."

Unlike the BT-EE conglomerate, other operators that wish to move to converged networks will have to buy some of the services like broadband wholesale from BT.

"When those converged offers are built around the subsidy that is inherent in an £18 a month line rental charge, there is clearly a market distortion there that reinforces all of the market issues that have led up to this."

Miller said that a governmental change would be needed to "change the fundamentals of our communications landscape so we move from being a market characterised by intense competition at a retail level but much less competition at the wholesale through network levels."


The missing link

For Neil Fraser of ViaSat UK, the problem is different but still at a government level: the lack of recognition of the vital role of satellite networks in providing ubiquitous connectivity is a major drag on progress.

"Satellite is not a last resort, it just hasn’t been factored into national infrastructure.
"Satellites take time to build and get into orbit, about 40 months from the decision. But arguably if we’d made the decision a while ago instead of just backing the fibre piece we’d have the capacity now."

Fraser explains that what is needed is "myth-busting"; satellite is often seen as an expensive and ineffective way to connect people to broadband.

He cites ViaSat figures from the US showing 12 Mbps speeds down and 3 Mbps up for the equivalent of £30 per month, with 25 Mbps now available in some areas of the US.

Fraser adds that satellite technology is the most feasible way to reach the unconnected households in the UK which are not covered by the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme, which aims to deliver 24 Mbps broadband to 95 percent of households by 2017.

David Cameron recently announced that all UK citizens will be able to request a 10 Mbps connection by the end of the parliament.

"The challenge in the UK is this widening gap," says Fraser. "The last 5 percent of households is still disconnected.

"The government approach seems to be to deliver really good service to those that already have a service rather than deliver service to everyone.

"The last 5 percent is about 1.4 million households and the true underserved is a much larger figure."


Regulators need to look at the technology, not the products

The third part of the convergence mix is wi-fi and fixed broadband. Louise Lancaster of UK Broadband explains that this requires looking at the market in a different way.

"It’s important to look at this market as a whole and not through narrow blinkers.

"I don’t think converged networks can be regulated in the way that they are now, starting with a narrow product market: silo regulation. The problem with starting with the product market is that you’re always behind the curve of regulation, regulating what is currently provided rather than what could be provided.

"The result is remedies that don’t really do the job…there is a tendency to bed in incumbent legacy network design rather than allow people to design networks for tomorrow’s needs."

Lancaster explains what this might look like, if the Government takes a role in "encouraging infrastructure competition and network sharing.

"We’ve been looking at multi-operator core networks, which are sort of halfway between an MVNO and a passive network share."

This solution will require looking at spectrum in a different way.

"It’s Radio Access Network sharing but the difference is you’re sharing the spectrum capacity rather than each having your own spectrum capacity.

"For LTE and data you require large chunks of spectrum, so dividing them into small chunks isn’t necessarily the most effective use.

"With a multi-operator core network you get all the benefits of infrastructure competition: everyone has their own core network, you control the quality of service you provide to your customers, yet you’re all getting the benefit of access to a big chunk of spectrum that can provide high speeds."


However it is achieved, the Government needs to ensure that it is not an obstacle to technologies that could enable a better experience for consumers and better market for providers.

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