It is amazing having spent some 13 years now covering broadband roll-outs in the UK and a couple of years before that following the nascent beginnings of broadband in the UK that only now in 2013 are seeing the heavyweight newspaper and political shows covering the topic.
The recent National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee report and meeting appear to have woken up a sleeping giant and by fitting broadband into the straight jacket of political processes honed over hundred’s of years it is now something that can be featured by mainline journalists. Oh and by the way the feeling of opinion that has lead to lengthy on going debates in comment sections that drive visitor numbers is a nice by product.
Into this nice mixture which we have covered in our main news over the last month, there was the Newsnight coverage last week, that by starting the show sat on a chair in a field helped to convey the picture that Westminster wants us to think the BDUK project is all about, those pleasant green fields of England from the past and not the hustle and bustle of market towns which if the truth be told will be the main recipients of BDUK funding in the current round of £530m to 2015. Post 2015 when the magic £250m becomes available that the move from 90% to 95% will impact more on those farms that are 2 miles from the nearest post box and maybe 4 miles from closest village shop.
Into this mix exploded an article on the Guardian website on Monday 12th August, that has joined the band wagon that BT is evil and is after every penny of subsidy they can get, and that may well be true, but then what company would not like to receive a subsidy to help roll-out a service, that if left to their own devices they might eventually deliver. There in lies the question so rarely asked, if the state did nothing how long before BT would hit the same coverage levels, and thus is the spending of the £530m (rises to around £1.2billion once you include money from councils) value for money at all?
So why this blog if there is nothing wrong in having an opinion about BT? Because Peter Cochrane who is an advocate of full fibre to the premise (FTTH/P) is quoted as saying the only part of the British Isles able to receive a Gigabit service (Guardian says gigabyte we assume that is a typo) is Jersey.
This is patently untrue and is actually doing the hard work of community projects (e.g. B4rn) both those already delivering a service and those planning projects. Add to this the investment by commercial operators who are using a mixture of models, e.g. Hyperoptic with a focus on urban FTTB type deployments and competitors like Ask4, through to Gigaclear leading the demand lead charge in the villages. There is the KC Lightstream services also in the Hull area and evil the big bad PLC of BT has FTTP available to some 95,000 properties.
The observant may be shouting at me, that not all those projects offer Gigabit speeds, which is true, but they are FTTB or FTTH based which can easily be upgraded and even in Jersey where Gigabit is available, it still has a monthly usage allowance (100GB), which equates to one HD film per night.
An investor reading the Aditya Chakrabortty article could be left with the impression that BT has hovered up all this public money, thus little point in investing the relatively small amounts of money that many operators are looking for to allow them to start with their small but still important roll-outs. It is these islands of pure fibre connectivity that will demonstrate whether the accountant led approach by BT is short-sighted or a whether its assessment that people are not willing to pay the extra for the highest speed packages yet, means that they can do some of the groundwork for national FTTP now, but leave the time consuming task of blowing fibre through the walls of homes to another decade.
Oh the headline for this blog article, a question asked at the Public Accounts Committee was why was 90% chosen as the target for superfast coverage and the BDUK and others had no real answer to give, but it appears if you read the Labour Party Manifesto from 2010, that as well as forming the original BDUK they had also decided that the last 10% of the UK would be covered using satellite and broadband rather than superfast services.
We will reach the long-term vision of superfast broadband for all through a public-private partnership in three stages: first, giving virtually every household in the country a broadband service of at least two megabits per second by 2012; second, making possible superfast broadband for the vast majority of Britain in partnership with private operators, with Government investing over £1 billion in the next seven years; and lastly reaching the final ten per cent using satellites and mobile broadband.
Sat here in 2013, where my own local cabinet has just had its fibre twin stood in the ground as part of the Surrey BDUK roll-out it is interesting to see that the NAO dates for when we will have 95% coverage of a superfast service line up nicely with the Labour idea 90% by 2017. In politics not much changes other than the colour of the ties and the broadband reality looks not much different even if the sound bites have got more interesting.