Published on 6 April 2020
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COVID19  •  Government  •  Regulation

Why we need a new “Office for black swans”

Steve Unger looks at how the UK’s communications infrastructure has coped with the increased demand due to social distancing, and at the lessons the current crisis holds for planning for future low-likelihood, high-impact events.

Steve is an affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute, and was previously a Board member of Ofcom, the UKs communications regulator.

The social distancing required by the COVID-19 crisis prevents us from interacting with each other in the real world. As a result, much of our social and economic activity has shifted online to a new form of virtual reality.  Remote working, virtual exercise classes, even cabinet meetings, are all happening over online platforms such as Zoom.

The good news is that communications infrastructure in the UK is holding up well. It wasn’t designed with the current crisis in mind, but the networks which have been built to stream high definition video seem to be capable of handling the extra load.

Statistics published by BT reveal that the traffic carried over its network during a typical working day has increased by 35-60%. However, the peak in network traffic during the day is still only half that seen in the evening, and is well within design tolerances (see here). There is no room for complacency, but these figures are encouraging.

For years we have talked about the increasing dependence of our economy and society on communications services. It is worth asking what lessons can be learnt from the sudden increase in dependency due to the current crisis.

In the case of the communications sector, the main lesson is a reminder of what really matters – universal access to a decent broadband service.  The risks associated with digital exclusion are not new, but social distancing gives them a whole new meaning. Without access to the internet, social distancing means social and economic isolation.

We are not in a bad position, thanks, counter-intuitively, to a decision taken about a decade ago not to deploy fibre all the way to every home. Instead, the UK prioritised a rapid deployment of networks capable of delivering superfast broadband services. As a result, these are now available to around 95% of UK homes.

More recently, the focus of policy makers has been on driving the availability of full-fibre and 5G networks, for which aggressive targets have been set. I support this policy, indeed, as the person responsible for Ofcom’s 2015 strategic review of digital communications, I was one of its instigators.

However, it will take time for these targets to be delivered and meanwhile we cannot afford the creation of a new digital divide. In order to avoid this, I make two specific recommendations.

Firstly, we need to look again at the Universal Service Obligation (USO) scheme operating in the UK. This provides a safety net for those who are dependent on broadband connectivity, which now means all of us. It does so by requiring BT (KCom in Hull) to provide a basic broadband service to anyone who requests it.  Establishing this safety net was core to Ofcom’s strategy, though in recent years it has not attracted the same political attention as full-fibre and 5G.

However, the specification of the USO is no longer fit for purpose, especially for the two-way video conferencing on which we now depend – the bandwidth guaranteed in the upstream direction (from people’s homes to the internet) is only 1MB/s. When the USO was introduced it was recognised that the specification would need to increase over time, and that commitment now needs to be honoured.

Secondly, we need to do more for those who have a decent broadband connection but experience difficulties with other aspects of their broadband service. That might be the quality of the WiFi in people’s homes, or the online platforms they use to collaborate. Communications networks are complex systems, and we need to get better at hiding that complexity from users. There has been some progress,[1] but we must do more.

There is a more fundamental question beyond communications about how we set priorities for policy in the absence of a crisis. In good times there is a tendency to focus on positive initiatives that will result in positive news stories. This is not meant as a criticism; indeed, the tendency to take an optimistic view of the future is generally a good thing.  

But it does create a risk that work to prepare for bad times is crowded out.  This capability does exist within government, but it does not always receive the visibility it merits, or the senior sponsorship necessary to drive sustained action across different parts of the public and private sectors. My own experience is that it is prioritised in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but that other priorities emerge as memories fade.

Of course, a key characteristic of ‘black swan’ events such as the current crisis is that they tend to be obvious – with hindsight. However, that does not mean it is impossible to make any preparation for them: COVID-19 is novel, but infectious diseases are not.

I remember a government minister commenting, after several years of serious floods, that although any specific flood might be a once in a lifetime event, somewhere in the country will be flooded every year. That new-found appreciation of the nature of statistics led to greater priority being given to flood preparations. We should apply that same principle more generally.

There is a strong case for creating a new public body to give these issues the sustained attention they require. Its task would be to assess the risk associated with different categories of those low-likelihood high-impact events which may not be addressed by conventional business continuity plans. It would publish recommendations as to an appropriate response. The recommendation may be to do nothing, on the basis that advance preparation is either impractical or too costly – which would at least be the result of a conscious decision. Where some form of action is agreed, it would track delivery.

Another quango? Yes, that is exactly what the response to this crisis should include.

References on this page

[1] For example, Ofcom makes available an app which allows people to check their in-home Wi-Fi and broadband connection

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Steve Unger

Dr Steve Unger

Affiliated Researcher

Steve Unger was until recently a Board member of Ofcom, the UK regulator responsible for digital communications. He had various responsibilities, including setting regulatory strategy for the UK, representing the...

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