Since the Public Accounts Committee session in July there has been a steady stream of politicians voicing their opinion on the UK broadband roll-out, see how we have carefully avoided the word rural. One of the latest has been an MEP, Phil Bennion who represents the West Midlands.

In my opinion, it is not so much a U-turn that we need to make, but an education campaign so that commentators and politicians actually understand what can be delivered by the various technologies on offer, and the price and speed of delivery and what the end result will be. In just a few words:

  1. Satellite broadband, great for USC but expensive hardware and big questions marks on capacity. Fastest to deploy until we hit contention and need to loft more satellites.
  2. Fixed wireless broadband, can easily meet a USC in the 15 to 25 Mbps region, but the number of masts to ensure 100% coverage could be an issue, as well as bandwidth available in the radio spectrum.
  3. BET, extension technologies, in simple terms amplifiers to boost signal, not particularly cheap but can get improve speeds for otherwise difficult to serve lines.
  4. 4G, very like fixed wireless but generally more costly per GB of data consumed, and may need more masts for rural coverage. People are wary after the 3G problems, but 4G may prove better than 3G.
  5. FTTC, the telephone company favourite as it can re-use existing assets, but speeds can vary and the 1 to 2% on very long cabinet to premise lines can miss out.
  6. FTTN, cable DOCSIS networks, potentially better performing than FTTC, but shared medium can lead to contention issues if your street has a couple of people creating an Internet archive.
  7. FTTH, the future proof idea, but cost per premises passed/connected can be very high due to digging needed, even with community led efforts can be slow to deploy.
  8. FTTB, only really ideal for cities, but as more villages gain blocks of 16 to 20 flats, there is scope for this.
  9. G.FAST, new and improved FTTC really and likely roll-out in 10 years to avoid the final 50 to 100m of work crossing peoples properties with fibre. Question is whether the cost would be better spent going all the way.

Rural versus Urban Broadband in the UK

 Full factsheet at

What got us writing this blog was that it is interesting to read that an MEP is writing about the EU funding being wasted, but then quotes two areas where the BDUK project have had no ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) money. We suspect that the need for EU State Aid approval is getting confused with money coming from the EU. This is also an MEP who also believes that one county is aiming for 60 Mbps to 80 Mbps speeds to 90% of properties, while another county is aiming for 24 Mbps to all rural properties.

In the case of Shropshire the contract declared a target of 93% of properties to have access to a super-fast broadband service. In short a speed of 24 Mbps (or if working to EU definition 30 Mbps) or faster and generally the contract announcements use careful wording, so if the target figure mentioned says x% with access to a fibre based service, the number getting super-fast speeds will usually be less. Of course there is the anti-FTTC camp that will say that many will never get close to super-fast speeds from FTTC, but invariably these comments are based on a sample of 2 or 3 friends or the deeply rural UK overlaid onto the network of villages that comprise most of the rural UK population. The problem is very few do a systematic analysis of their area and non of the counties, BDUK or Ofcom have really dug deep enough to disprove old data from Openreach, which is what we base our FTTC performance estimates on.

There is no doubt that some people have read the BT press releases at each signing which mention up to 80 Mbps speeds and take this figure as gospel, in the same way many have not understood that up to 80 Mbps is a very different meaning to fixed connection speed of 80 Mbps. Is this BT being evil, no just trying to emphasis the positive side, and the same goes on all over the place, e.g. we here of Google Fibre going to Austin, Texas and people get excited, when the reality is that Austin is a place of just 820,000 in a state of 26 million. Maybe we see the faults in ourselves, but assume the grass is greener elsewhere.

Phil Bennion does have some good points to make, in that a 2 Mbps Universal Service Commitment is out of date, but his reasoning for why is very dubious. I have worked from home for some 12 years now, and have remotely accessed systems around the world to update software and  processed very large datasets and this until 2007 was all on a 2 Mbps connection, and even now is still done on an ADSL2+ connection that runs at around 5.5 Mbps so the idea that a business is not able to fulfil government form filling requirements on a 6 Mbps for a farm seems odd. Yes this connection might struggle now and then if someone else is maxing it out watching a HD stream, but for the boring download and upload of forms, or web based transactions there should be no major issues. Unless of course the issue is radio frequency interference from farm machinery (something that we’ve seen crop up in small workshops using standard ADSL/ADSL2+ services), in which case time to consider a re-wire of the phone system or something as simple as removing the ring wire.

We are not saying the 2 Mbps USC is perfect and certainly would back a call for a 10 Mbps base line, but in a real world, changing the roll-outs and contracts now would be handing BT a gift, as they could doff their cap and simply ask for more money. Then again we see this happening all the time with other Government procurement projects, and rather than delivering something that is not perfect but can be delivered within budget we get something that is late, expensive and might be better but all too often gets canned due to cost overruns.

But before we get onto the campaign trail, we need to remember that the EU with its Digital Agenda target of everyone having access to a 30 Mbps connection or faster has already effectively set a Universal Service Commitment for 2020 that exceeds our current target.

The problem facing the UK broadband picture is that invariably the people driving it forward do not appear to understand the technicalities and some of the lobbying going on is done with the best intentions but may not reflect the national picture and here in lies the problem. The current Government is racing towards its 95% in 2017, trying to avoid too much mention of the delays expected in 2015, which actually look likely to be a 2% slip and as yet no mentions of cost overruns (cough NHS IT projects).

If the UK does get 95% coverage of largely FTTC based broadband by 2017, for the £530m + £250m (of which around £500m has actually come from the TV Licence fee), plus about the same from local councils then that is a pretty cheap and good outcome. Its not perfect, but can we afford perfection? Both in the time to deploy, and the cost to roll-out.

The question that we can only guess the answer to is if the £1 billion of public money was used on the ultimate solution of FTTH for the most rural parts of the UK, is how farms, homes and other businesses would benefit? Maybe 750,000 and then what about the rest of the rural UK? Gambling that commercial enterprise would fill in the middle between this 3% with FTTH and the 75% with a commercial fast solution which is going to be FTTC/FTTN with maybe a subset of 3% having a choice of FTTH.

What we are 100% sure of is that to garner the geek vote in 2015, politicians will be talking up what they have done for the digital economy and broadband infrastructure and if in opposition will be promising all many of great things, but like that new gadget we all crave, we know that 30 seconds after unboxing most of the excitement will have vanished.








6 Responses

  1. RichardH on 23 Sep 2013

    Writing this on a sub 1Mbps connection in rural Shropshire we have now been told it will be at least mid-2016 before we even get a 2Mbps service. Why ? Because all the money is being spent improving easy areas that already have good internet speeds while people in the difficult bits can either put up or shut up. Their logic is entirely wrong – rural users with hopeless broadband should at least have their speeds brought up to a usable level before any more money is spent elsewhere. Satellite broadband was a possibility until recently but the greed of the resellers in offering unlimited downloads on a system that clearly does not have enough capacity has now effectively killed off that option as well.

  2. andrew on 24 Sep 2013

    Richard one reason the ‘easy’ areas get improvements first is that the Openreach network layout involves the larger exchanges operating as the central node for 8 or so smaller exchanges.

    Thus these larger exchanges need to be enabled for the faster services first, and then the outlying areas can be enabled. Plus many projects do infill i.e. cabinets on the fringes of towns as these are the easiest wins.

  3. RichardH on 24 Sep 2013

    Yes, I understand that Andrew, but in the meantime it would be more helpful for people in rural SlowSpots and NotSpots if some of the money could be used for alternatives like Wibe or RedRaw because after all the promises about ‘2 meg for all by 2012’ I don’t know anyone who believes it will be done by 2016 either.

  4. mervl on 24 Sep 2013

    Part of the problem is the UK mentality of waiting for the “government” to do “something” all of the time. A sort of welfare state for everything. However you cut the cake government intervention is slow and inefficient. When I suffered 1 or 2 Meg speeds, I paid for the local fixed wireless operator to upgrade their mast as well as provide the reception facility on my dwelling. Self-help. Nobody else did. I was lucky. But in the modern world it’s all about returns on investment, whether public or private funds. So if you can’t offer the return or wait then it’s do it yourself (with your neighbours/Councils if you can) or if it’s that essential then move to the broadband. Neither of them is illegal.

  5. MikeW on 26 Sep 2013

    One problem with targeting the slowest premises first is that we don’t actually know who those people are. Well – we *do* know the absolute worst ones, but we don’t know who the ones are that are on the boundary that would (or wouldn’t) get the benefit from an FTTC cabinet.

    Some councils have explicitly stated that this round of BDUK spending is just the first round of initiatives aimed at the EU 2020 target (ie 30Mbps to everyone), and they don’t want to spend money on interim solutions that don’t help this aim.

    Obviously improving speeds for someone who would be improved (later) by FTTC – even at the outer reaches of the cabinet coverage area, where predictions are tricky – is such a waste (to the council, of course, not to the homeowner). That’s broadly why they’re doing that first.

    The problem with wireless solutions of any sort is that the bandwidth is shared. It is great for the final N%, when N is small enough. However, if you install this before FTTC, you find that it actually ends up serving many more people in the not-so-rural (but haven’t yet got FTTC) areas. Shared speeds will suffer.

    There is no easy answer. The difficulties come in the trade-offs and the threshold areas

  6. MikeW on 26 Sep 2013

    There is another fibre term coming out now: FTTW (W=wall).

    It is the single-dwelling equivalent of FTTB, where fibre goes to the outside wall of a property, and copper remains to the inside.

    Advantage? Can be installed without requiring an appointment with the owners, so installation can be planned into areas wholesale, reducing costs.

    I’ve started to see this where people are trying to evaluate the cost of FTTP against the likes of G.Fast.

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