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.

10 Responses

  1. PhilT on 14 Aug 2013

    You wouldn’t think this was the country that stuck its heels in against the Third Reich and got behind a consensus decision, now we would fall apart arguing in social media how Hitler’s autobahns were a better solution than Churchill’s railways and the V2 was the military future not the Spitfire.

    We have the ongoing “My Way” karaoke of has-beens like Peter Cochrane and that OPLAN guy – well off and intellectually bright people somehow unable to build one of their own fantastical solutions but happy to take speaker’s and consultancy fees berating BT for using the more cost-effective FTTC route as the first step in capacity upgrades.

    Then we have opposition from the anti-capitalists, disguised communists, committed cooperative advocates and other believers in the sort of collective solution that nobody would actually vote for or pay for and only exists in a handful of “interesting example” schemes.

    Add to that the psychologically challenged BT haters who can’t put together a sentence without mentioning “the incumbent” and similar give-away phrases that will in due course find their way into the DSM. Some of them even seek to make a living from this poison diatribe.

    BDUK itself is subject to crossfire from the above parties and from those opposed to State intervention or the public sector in general, a group who can point to South Yorks Digital Region as a another dying example of where Government throwing its money into the marketplace is ultimately futile.

    The Digital Britain vision was always bounded by constraints, debating whether “universal” meant “as available as UHF TV” and to what extent the economics would deliver coverage. BDUK’s £530m for the “final third” was about £53 per property, about a year’s interest on an FTTH connection, so it was always going to be a “best bang for our buck” procurement.

    Public sector procurement is never class leading, but decent people try their best with a load of constraints and conflicting advice and opinions flying round while they wrestle with a topic that is often new to them. I believe we have to accept that unless we use the military, police or fire brigade resources to build something themselves then we’re going to get what the public sector can persuade the private sector to build to the issued specification within the price they’re prepared to pay.

    Is it not time to move on and let BDUK and BT do what they’re going to do and concentrate the enthusiasm, expertise and innovation around filling in the gaps that will prevail in the near term and then evolving a “next decade broadband” strategy for the 2020s.

    After all, FTTC costs about one year’s interest / cost of capital of an FTTH connection so we’re financially better off with an FTTC stopgap that is adequate for the majority without ruling out or detracting from a subsequent FTTH upgrade.

    So let’s see the Altnets, Co-ops, community groups, SMEs, startups, VCs, housing developers and the retired and fired do their best filling in the gaps and offering better solutions.

    • lee on 16 Aug 2013

      i can see why the BDUK project can not be given to any one else in the UK due to way BT network is already set up all the pipes are there all you need to do is fix the ducts and bring fiber to the FTTC cabs (that likely can do FTTH later on) and you got your quick fix for the UK most will get more then 40mb (most will get more then 10mb)

      where as anyone els you have to start from the beginning (like Virgin media) and be in negative money for very long time and then go bust and get taken over by another company and then another

      you just end up wasting money when you just pay BT and be done with it (BT would of had a fiber network 10-15 years ago but that was blocked, now it costs to much to do it on there own unless you want to pay £100 a month or more for it)

  2. TheManStan on 14 Aug 2013

    £1.2m??? £1.2B!

    To be honest if you had a poor sub-3Mb connection and suddenly had FTTC, which is what happened to our village just outside Oxford, then life is remarkably good. The “majority” of the village >90% have access to >50Mbs connections. The kids can hog the TV and or watch youtube on the telly, I can play my online game no stutter and lag, and the missus can catch up on Suburgatory on 4oD without any trouble at all with plenty of bandwidth left for downloading and uploading work in the background…
    FTTC will be perfect for ” NORMAL RESIDENTIAL” use like i’ve outlined for many years and can be delivered in relatively short timescales, by the time more capacity is needed for residential use FTTC will have evolved or have been transformed into FTTH.

  3. andrew on 14 Aug 2013

    Have fixed my billion issue.

    Interestingly there are multiple versions of the Labour Manifesto where some refer to two MegaBytes per second rather than 2 Mega bits per second

  4. mervl on 15 Aug 2013

    The British have always moaned about everything and talked about things endlessly (and tied themselves up in semantics). Just as the world carries on going round and progress happens, regardless. Sometimes, as with broadband, we might even manage to help it along a bit; and still complain bitterly. Those that can, do (and are); those that can’t, always complain. But progress is slow because people are slow to adapt to change. You might change the technology but you can’t change human nature.

  5. Isambard Brunel on 15 Aug 2013

    I am still waiting for my 2Mb/s

  6. Philip Virgo on 18 Aug 2013

    The pre-1997 Conservative duopoly policy was for competition in the local loop with at least two competing suppliers (BT and a cable company) supplying “broadcast quality video” to every home by 2002, with additional wireless based services. This was dropped in favour of “local loop unbundling”, alias reselling a BT monopoly service, by the Labour Government. The latter was still the mindset of the officials who created BDUK and its framework. The headline to this article is therefore most apt. More than a decade after 2002 over a third of the country is still dependent on a single monopoly infrastructure.

    • Somerset on 18 Aug 2013

      It’s only a single supplier, not a monopoly, because the other 124 companies with code powers choose not to invest in some areas.

      We have 100% monopolies with gas, electric, water and drains. Why is telecomms an issue?

  7. New_Londoner on 20 Aug 2013

    The Guardian article is worthy of mention too, not least because it appears to be a totally made up story not backed by a single shred of evidence.

    The reality is, if I understand it correctly, that the BDUK money is only paid to BT in response to receipts etc. So how could this money be spent to deliver coverage in BDUK areas whilst also subsidising the BT Sport investment? How would it be paid to BT SPort without receipts, which are auditable?

    I presume it was a quiet news day but it is a sad day when journalists put forward theories as news without checking their facts. This discredits the profession, does a disservice to real reporting.

  8. Stefan on 21 Aug 2013

    The point missed in all the coverage is that BT is paid through the regulatory price setting mechanism to refresh its network in a timely manner. This is something the customer pays for as part of their bill. For overhead wires Ofcom assumes as asset life of 18 years which means that BT is paid to replace these every 18 years. We should fibre to the home for a third or more of homes already by now. The money customers pay for that has gone somewhere else – that, in answer to Paul Virgo, is the problem with telecoms: it is time to renew the infrastructure and the regulated company is already paid to do so but somehow keeps getting away with using the money for other things. Then the taxpayer pays them again via BDUK just adding insult to injury. You could not make this stuff up!

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