I am Till Sommer, head of policy at the Internet Service Providers’ Association. We are basically the trade body for the fixed-line ISP sector in the UK. We represent a whole range of companies, from the largest infrastructure providers that you heard about from the previous panel, such as Openreach and CityFibre, to the smaller start-up companies and ambitious alternative network providers who roll out their own networks in urban or rural areas. Some of them are focused on Wales, and others are focused on England and Scotland—there are a whole variety.
Then, on top of that, we have a lot of companies in our membership that provide services across these networks. That includes some of the household names, such as Sky Broadband, but also smaller challenger brands or business-focused providers. So it is a really diverse sector and a very ambitious sector. There is a lot of competition in the sector and quite often that gets overlooked when you just look at the sector from the outside and you see a few large companies. As I said, there is a lot of variety in the sector.
Interestingly, because there is so much competition in the sector, our members hardly agree on anything; they always bicker about policy positions. And wayleaves is actually one of the few things where every single member who builds networks is saying, “This is the single biggest barrier to rolling out broadband for me.” That is one of the few areas where literally every single ISPA member says, “Something needs to change.” That is unique. On almost everything else, I could tell you a variety of views, and this is one of the few areas where everybody says, “Something needs to change.”
Q It would be helpful to know how your members believe they stand to benefit from the Bill. You say that there is a strange degree of unity among them on this legislation, but in so far as there is any disparity of view among your members, it would be helpful if you could characterise that for us, so that we have an understanding of where commercial interest sits for different types of internet providers here.
Yes, sure. The Bill basically does three different things: it is access to third-party land in rural areas; it is the alternative dispute resolution mechanism on a voluntary basis; and the third area is upgrade rights. Upgrade rights, as you heard from the previous panel, is one area where there is slight disagreement because, depending on how you fix that, it might give one set of providers a competitive advantage over the others. For that reason, I do not want to go into too much detail there.
At the basic level, we want more upgrade rights, because it helps to use the infrastructure that is already there, rather than digging up the road again, putting up new telegraph poles or, as was said, just not doing something at all because the money is not there to build in that area if you cannot reuse the infrastructure. Beyond that, I do not want to go into too much detail, or I will get into trouble with my members and they will all talk to you separately.
I will take the other two areas, including access to third-party land. We have a few members who are specifically focused on rural areas. They are effectively going at the moment where Openreach does not have a strong build. They are very ambitious. They have told us quite early on that this Bill is game-changing for them. Access to third-party land in rural areas is simply the one thing that will unlock additional properties in their roll-out plans.
The reason for that is that this part of the Bill effectively mirrors something that was done a year ago for multi-dwelling units in urban areas, because it looks at a problem that our members face; I will use a very simple example. Let us say they want to reach a rural hamlet and there are three routes to it—one across a farmer’s field, one across a railway line and one across a hilly area. The most economical route is across the farmer’s field, but that field might be owned by someone who is not living in the UK, or who does not look at their emails or their post; that farmer just does not respond. At the moment, there is no mechanism to get any sort of forward movement in that situation.
So, what happens is that the provider either moves on, because they decide that it is not economically viable to take one of the other routes to that hamlet, or they say, “Actually, no, we do go across the railway line, but we descope parts of the hamlet. The money just isn’t there any more to connect every single house. It’s still economically viable to go there, round the field, but it doesn’t quite reach the whole village.”
Third-party land access provides a mechanism to get access to wayleaves, or access to land, for a limited period in those very limited circumstances. That will unlock those properties that at the moment are at risk of missing out. I am sure some of you will have seen in the past an announcement from a broadband provider—you might have even done a press release with them—saying that they are building out to x number of houses in the constituency. Then, after two years—after the roll-out programme is done—the number is not quite there. Quite often the reason for that is because the build has been more difficult than expected, there have been unresponsive landlords and the money that was allocated for that area does not quite match the ambitions.
It is worthwhile keeping in mind that roll-out is privately funded. There is Government support for the hardest-to-reach areas and we appreciate that, but outside of that it is privately funded infrastructure, with a return on investment over 20 or 30 years. We need to make an investment case. The companies, our members, need to make the investment case for their investors, for their shareholders and for their owners, that they will at some point get that money back. That is why we sometimes need to make those difficult decisions where stuff is being descoped. That is why the Bill is so important; it helps avoid those areas and unlock that bottleneck.
I mentioned alternative dispute resolution; some of our members are a bit sceptical about it, and that is largely because they roll out on a very large scale. Having to deal with thousands and thousands of ADR processes can be quite daunting, time-intensive and costly. For that reason, we believe it is good that it is done on voluntary basis, with the clear incentive provided in the Bill that the tribunal will take ADR into account. It will help a lot when it comes to negotiations with large landowners; that can include local authorities, where our members often have to negotiate a headlease or a head wayleave agreement. That can be super-complicated, because there is part of the local authority that is really keen on getting broadband, but the people dealing with the wayleave stuff do not really care because it is not in their portfolio. There are then mixed messages coming from the local authority. On the one hand they are saying, “Can you please roll out broadband as quickly as possible,” but on the other hand there are people saying, “It takes another year to negotiate the agreement.” ADR will be really useful to make progress in those very large wayleave cases.
Q The legislation will make it easier to share infrastructure. What is your analysis of how that will change the economics of roll-out, but also reduce visual impairment from having new infrastructure in post? As MPs, we are all familiar with some of the concerns that constituents have about that kind of infrastructure in their vicinity. Will this help maximise the existing networks, such that we do not see more masts and so on?
Yes, that is exactly right. If you cannot use existing infrastructure but you are still going to roll out the network, you need to dig up the roads. I assume you have all received lots of letters about roadworks and the problems that they cause. You either dig up the roads or put up new telegraph poles, which is more expensive and is another element of visual impairment and disruption. For that reason it is much more economical—and from a visual aspect, less intrusive—to reuse existing infrastructure.
We do. Basically, a key bit that our members provide to your constituents—their customers—is a router, plus other equipment, that is classed as an internet-connected device under part 1 of the Bill. We are in regular contact with your civil servants on that, to clarify timelines and how the Bill might bite. We do not have any concerns about the idea. We support the idea of the Bill; it is more about the implementation, and ensuring that the supply chain is aware of the new provisions that are coming in.
I have heard from a lot of our members that they have started to talk to their supply chain to say, “By the way, in a year, or in one and a half years, depending on when the Bill will be done, we need to ensure that your products comply with these rules.” Because a lot of the manufacturers are overseas, they are not yet aware of them. Anything that can be done to raise awareness among consumer product providers would be welcome. There are a couple of other bits that go very much into the detail around associated software, when it comes to parental controls, which could be affected. I am happy to write to you on that if you want, but we will talk with the Department about it anyway. It is very much nitty-gritty stuff.
Do any Back Benchers have further questions for Mr Sommer? In that case, I thank you very much on behalf of the Committee, Mr Sommer, for the evidence that you have given, and we will move on to the next panel, somewhat ahead of time.