I have attended a good number of meetings about broadband where a mixture of providers, politicians and lobbyists are present and by and large always find that they are lacking in actual technical content and some in the past have been told to dumb down responses when getting into the technical aspects (where technical can simply mean discussing upstream speeds). So to read the write up via an anonymous source in Computer Weekly for a meeting with alternate network providers to discuss the final 10% problem for rural broadband has me screaming at my screen, both for what appears to have done at the meeting and the subsequent coverage.
The DCMS, BT, politicians and campaigners are it appears stuck in a loop where there is a mystical final 10% for broadband across the UK that can be identified with one or two magical database queries. Alas given the widely varying targets that the local authorities have implemented the situation is far from simple, e.g. Surrey if it hits its target might only have 2% falling below the lowest accepted definition of superfast (a connection speed of 24 Mbps or faster), but at the other end of the spectrum Scotland has a target of 85% with option of fibre broadband by the end of 2015, rising to 95% in 2017 and Northamptonshire already has a 100% superfast target set for 2017. Now of course we cannot say for certain what speeds the people will get and there in lies a major problem, as people will enjoy speculating based on their local experience of broadband.
The Computer Weekly article appears to have been written from the viewpoint that the BDUK process has failed to deliver anything or will not deliver what is expected, i.e. the usual UK habit of everything is a disaster and or a botch job. My view is that it is far from perfect, but at least lets look at the data over the next couple of years before we lynch a politician over it.
We suspect that councils should be able to identify areas that will not be covered by the main superfast component of their project, but if they do this now before the full planning and roll-out it would mean that any claw back clauses to improve coverage (i.e. money handed back by BT due to commercial levels of take-up) would be effectively useless and would simply sit around until the date triggers where they are handed back to the council. The change in June 2013 when the £300m we already knew about was paraded as a new £250m investment by the Government and a push to get superfast coverage to 95% at some point in 2017 was also a moving of the goalposts and that has ramifications for any smaller alt-net type project, especially given there is talk of going even further.
I have voiced my view before that the only way to have avoided a lot of the current mess would have been to wait for the commercial roll-outs to complete and then assess what was left and only then consider spending public money. Market failure for the BDUK final third project has only ever been a paper tiger, hence the delays in the EU granting State Aid Approval. A delay to the main £530m BDUK project would have allowed alt-nets time to gain the foothold they want, and have made issues like the Open Market Review much easier to judge. It may have even meant that Openreach identified more areas where a commercial roll-out was viable, saving the public purse money.
If the BDUK process and EU State Aid Rules are boiled down to the ultimate conclusion, you have the situation where you are creating mini monopolies part funded with public money, this charge is commonly thrown at BT but it is just as correct for other firms using public money. BT is cast as the predatory vampire squid, but I suspect that any other operator of similar size would behave the same way.
So while we can voice moral outrage now at the idea that councils may want to wait till 2015 or later to be sure where their projects will be when they finish, this actually sounds like a reasonable solution if you want to avoid the risk of legal objections to various projects. Just maybe the DCMS should have franchised the likely most rural areas and back in 2011 said that these areas are outside the main project, but only available for RCBF type projects.
There are some people looking at the speeds of 15 Mbps being mentioned but this is where things get a bit more technical and a read of what the EU State Aid rules say is needed:
In assessing projects for State aid approval, the NCC requires that NGA technologies that are used in NGA white intervention areas must provide the same outputs as those defined for other established NGA network deployments. Specifically, the NCC will expect to see that the technical solution:
- is capable of providing access speeds in excess of 30Mbps download, not only by reference to theory and technical standards, but also by evidence of calibrated performance measurements of an existing deployment within the area of interest or an demonstrably equivalent deployment in a similar geographical environment;
- typically provides at least a doubling of average access speeds in the target NGA intervention area;
- must be designed in anticipation of providing at least ~15Mbps download speed to end-users for 90% of the time during peak times in the target intervention area, as demonstrated by industry-standardised or reliable independent measurements;
- must show how the solution would adapt to maintain capability and end-user experience in changes to key parameters such as increased take-up and increased demand for capacity, and be able to show using clear calculations that this is both technically and commercially viable;
- must have characteristics (e.g. latency, jitter) that enable advanced services to be delivered e.g. video-conferencing and High Definition video streaming to be provided to end users as evidenced by trials results not necessary obtained within the area of interest; and
- have longevity such that one might reasonably expect increases in performance within the next 7 years.Guidance notes for the role of Next Generation Access technologies in addressing superfast broadband market failure under the UK’s State aid scheme
This seems pretty clear, in that the 15 Mbps 90% of the time, is referring to peak time speeds, or in layman’s terms a measure of congestion. Thus it avoids a bidder for a project delivering a connection speed of 140 Mbps to every home but once 1,000 homes are connected at peak times people can only get dial-up type speeds because they only installed 250 Mbps of backhaul.
The underlying need for connections to provide speeds in excess of 30 Mbps to qualify as superfast intervention still applies. Though there are still some projects operating to a 24 Mbps definition for superfast, but this is generally those where no ERDF funding is used.
The problem now is that a good number of people will latch onto this 15 Mbps figure and claim this is all that the project will deliver, the only way this would happen is if every cabinet rolled out by Openreach as part of the BDUK contracts was in a field on its one with the nearest property 1km away.
I do not think the Openreach roll-out is perfect but for the money the public purse is spending it is difficult to see what we could have realistically got better. The Fujitsu bid was if to be believed FTTH to a coverage level of 80%, which means just 7% of premises given current commercial levels, with the remaining 20% using a mixture of alternative technologies.
At the end of the day we have councils that they may be struggling to cope with the data onslaught that mapping the projects involves, this is not as an insult to the councils simply a fact that it takes time and resources to handle mapping tasks - this is something that the BDUK could have helped with rather than providing a near useless website that still really is based around a couple of spread sheets shared via Google.
The current stand-off was solvable but only if the BDUK had insisted on contract bidders at the time of tendering giving an absolute commitment on what speeds individual postcodes or parish councils would receive and was contractually obliged to hit those targets. Now with the contracts signed and locked away, a change like this will have BT (and it would have any other provider) asking for time or more money to actually take on the work. Given that at the Public Accounts Committee we heard that other potential bidders were dropping out due to other conditions already imposed.
The technology that would be the perfect solution and we all know what it is – Fibre to the Premises suffers from the cost of delivery and as the politicians wanted something they could parade in the 2015 General Election there was never the money or time for millions of homes to be connected using FTTP.