“When Malcolm Matson asks the question, ‘Who will control local connectivity?’ he exposes the fundamental question facing civil society at the dawn of the twenty-first century.”
Sascha Meinrath ‐ New America Foundation, Washington DC
People live, labour, learn and leisure in cities and communities. Despite operating in a global economy, the primary locus of everyday life for most people on earth is local. Relationships, communications and transactions which mark out our daily lives remain predominantly real, not virtual and local, not global. Home, neighbourhood and then town or city are the primary contexts of everyday life in a civil society. Over 80% of our journeys from home or work, for whatever purpose and by whatever means, are local, 10 miles or less.
The three seminal digital technologies of the second half of the 20th century (silicon chip; optical fibre and cognitive radio) should be deployed and operated in and around our cities and communities in a manner that supports, reinforces and enhances this ‘local’ reality. They are not. Almost without exception, local connectivity in our cities and communities (including access to the global internet) remains firmly under the control of the telecom and cable‐TV sectors. Both these remain wedded to a vertically integrated ‘service provider’ business model (network + operation + content) which is a legacy of the fast‐fading era of analogue technologies. Citizens, households, corporate bodies (private, public and voluntary) and public agencies are all held hostage to the cartel of quasi‐competing vertically integrated ‘service providers’, all operating under that obsolete business model. Communication within and across the local community, as well as beyond, is only possible via the ’toll‐booth’ of the local phone company or cable TV operator. This affords these ‘service providers’ with massive incentive and opportunity to rent‐seek as well as to control and exploit infrastructure usage for their own benefit, albeit within the arbitrary limits permitted by a sector‐specific regulator.
Reinforced by this flawed public policy, the telecoms and cable‐TV sectors can persist in creating a self‐serving, needless differentiation between wholesale and retail connectivity and services. We believe that the optimum public benefit for any city or local community will be delivered under a ‘net‐neutral’ business model that ensures that every citizen, every business (including conventional telecoms/IP ‘service providers’), every Government department, every public agency and every other institution in a city or community has direct ‘open access’ to end‐to‐end connectivity across that community on identical terms. We call this an Open Public Local Access Network (OPLAN) ‐ the 4th Utility.
Under the OPLAN structure, conventional telecoms and cable TV operators are not treated as an elite group, with exclusive primary access to the infrastructure in order to control and benefit from a ‘toll‐gate’ through which everyone must pay to pass before gaining access to local or global connectivity. Rather, they should be treated as an important and vital provider of services across this utility infrastructure ‐ along with everyone else … which includes every 15 year old digital genius who, by access to their OPLAN, can have equal means to create and market the world’s next Facebook or eBay. The principle of ‘open access’ underpins the roads, streets and highways of our cities and local communities and has served civil society well for a millennium or more. It should be the same with the fibre and wireless infrastructures that could provide local point‐to‐point electronic connectivity in the twenty‐first century.
Despite a generation since the emergence of the digital age and the freely available digital technologies of abundance referred to above, as yet, no city in the world enjoys as its prime (if not only) means of local electronic connectivity, an ubiquitous, unified and ‘future‐proof’ utility infrastructure, managed on the OPLAN business model.
The reason for this serious state of affairs is complex but fundamentally results from:
- the hitherto successful lobbying of vested interests to steer public policy away from an ‘open access’ business model
- the lack of one or more high profile ‘exemplars’ somewhere in the world which irrefutably demonstrates the profound and transformational socio‐economic impact of this OPLAN approach ‐ a ‘Stockton‐Darlington for the digital age
Malcolm Matson, pioneer of the UK broadband era in the early 1980s and then founder of COLT Telecom, has undertaken considerable work over three decades in conceiving, developing and articulating the OPLAN model. In 2004 he founded The OPLAN Foundation as a not‐ for‐profit institution which has subsequently provided independent advice globally, particularly to local and national political leaders as well as The World Bank and is currently undertaking EU funded research. Formed at the same time, its affiliate OpenPlanet Limited, has done substantial financial modelling and developed a deep understanding of the business, legal and governance issues relating to OPLANs. This work clearly suggests that the OPLAN model delivers a win‐win‐win solution for everyone:
- requires the OPLAN infrastructure itself to be owned by an appropriate ‘not‐for‐profit’ corporate entity (but not the state) such that all value and benefit from the infrastructure goes to users ‐ just as in the middle ages when major bridges and markets in many cities (including London) were owned by charitable trusts
- can be funded from the private sector (inc. social enterprise investment) with minimal or no direct public sector support
- requires no additional costs or charges to be levied on end users for accessing the OPLAN compared to what is currently paid for periodic telephone line rental
- stimulates and supports the delivery of innovative and critical e‐services (e.g. health and education) which the ‘best‐efforts’ public internet will never be capable of sustaining
- delivers substantial gain to the incumbent telecoms operator provided they embrace the OPLAN business model rather than fight it
OpenPlanet Ltd. is well advanced with ‘Project Safari’ – an OPLAN project in a major city which, when implemented, will be that global exemplar – triggering widespread emulation and further development by other cities and communities elsewhere in the world. It will finally convince the telecoms sector, capital markets and politicians alike that there is an all‐round more productive and effective ‘mousetrap’ from which everyone can prosper and benefit.