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Rural broadband needs competition, not cash

Wednesday, March 5th 2014 by Hannah Langston
Fast broadband can be delivered to rural areas, but not by BT alone.

Another week, another tale of rural broadband woe. Property expert Henry Pryor has revealed houses without broadband could be worth 20% less than similar properties with a fast connection[1]. This isn’t surprising to those of us who consider broadband to be ‘the fourth utility’ but unlike the water, electricity and gas supplies to our homes, broadband is not yet available to everyone and for many users in rural areas, slow speeds make it pretty much useless.

The government has made clear that fast broadband for rural communities is a priority by throwing £1.2bn of taxpayers’ money into the pot. However, the pot currently belongs to BT, having won all of the UK’s rural broadband contracts so far, and it’s looking doubtful that anyone else will get a share. Originally 16 organisations had shown interest in the rollout[2] but all apart from BT have pulled out. The reasons why are purely speculative but a key question remains: can BT alone solve our rural broadband woes?

The answer is a simple no. Healthy competition is key to ensuring consumers receive the best possible service. When you open the rural broadband market up to competition then every area of the UK has the potential to receive fast broadband and in fact rural areas could get speeds up to ten times faster than their nearest cities.

Enter the little guys – the community broadband initiatives or ‘altnets’ that can deliver speeds of up to 1Gbps in their local area. Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is bringing an up to 1Gbps service (noticeably higher than BT’s top speed of 300Mb and Virgin Media’s 152Mb offering) to 350 homes in the Forest of Bowland and the Lune Valley. The majority of these projects deliver Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) broadband whereas BT’s infrastructure relies on the old copper wires to take fibre from the green street cabinets into customers’ homes.

Crucially, altnets can install fibre broadband for around 34% subsidy while BT’s rollout demands nearly 90% state aid[3], according to the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA). BT has kept tight-lipped about it’s costings and how the 1.2bn will be divvied up – a move which received criticism[4] from both the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) who expressed concerns over BT’s apparent lack of transparency[5]. PAC Chair Margaret Hodge MP previously blasted BT for threatening to only install fibre in non commercially viable areas if there was taxpayer or government funding available. Tech blog Br0kenTeleph0n3 accused the provider of making it difficult for altnets to provide coverage without overbuilding BT’s subsidised coverage areas[6].

Along with BT, local authorities have a key part to play in fuelling competition. Recently, the Cotswold broadband scheme in West Oxfordshire and the Trailway project in North Dorset were dropped by their respective councils. The latter was told that BT was intending to upgrade the same area and had already signed a contract with the council[7]. Authorities need to consider alternatives that represent value for money and demand clear information from BT regarding coverage maps and timescales. Greater technical training among council representatives can help them to identify the best option for their residents.

Let’s not forget that the government’s BDUK project covers 90% of the UK. In hard to reach areas, local initiatives are going to be the only way communities can keep up with the rest of the country’s speeds. Take B4RN for example who are covering an area that doesn’t feature in BDUK’s rollout plans and would otherwise have been left to suffer with slow speeds for the foreseeable future. These little guys are filling the gaps BT will leave – we need to start giving them some credit.

The rural broadband community fund, although heavily criticized, is now starting to back such projects – with funding pledged to schemes in Rothbury in Northumberland and Northmoor in West Oxfordshire. But a collaborative effort is needed from all three parties: councils, BT and government, to encourage competition. Without it the UK’s target of having the ‘best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015 2017’ could slip further away.

References

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/mar/02/fast-broadband-vital-to-homebuyers
  2. http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/news/1189166/super-fast-broadband-rollout-super-slow-says-audit-office
  3. http://www.inca.coop/inca-statement-rural-community-broadband-fund
  4. https://www.nao.org.uk/report/the-rural-broadband-programme/
  5. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/public-accounts-committee/news/rural-broadband-report/
  6. http://br0kent3l3ph0n3.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/how-to-get-better-value-from-that-250m-for-rural-broadband
  7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24919148

Comments (2)

Occasional Berk
10th March 2014

Most of our semi rural community is too far from a cabinet to get service under BT's Superfarce FTTC broadband plan in Lancashire.

(NB. they call it BT Superfast Lancashire, but I'm sorry, given their abject failure - I refuse to.)

Built along roads, many of these communities are quite linear, and as a result, only those residents and businesses which are near a cabinet in that long line - may get broadband. More worryingly it is only those very close indeed and also where the ageing copper infrastructure supports - who can get download speeds of 20Mpbs or higher. All the other businesses, residents and communities on side roads appear to be too far for BT Superfarce to reach effectively.

My real-world "on the ground" mapping of this community from three cabinets that are supposedly BT Superfarce "enabled" seems to markedly contradict the shiny marketing estimates from BT and Supaerfarce Lancashire.

We are seeing many properties at just 350 m to 500 m from an enabled cabinet unable to get any more than the ADSL line they previously had from the exchange.

More crucially, those I am beginning to include in my term of the "digitally disenfranchised", are those who have properties or businesses that are between 500 m to 1000 m from a cabinet. These often get very poor broadband speeds (<1Mbps) indeed and in at least half of the cases, no broadband connection at all.

Once you move more than 1500 m from a cabinet, then the matter becomes far more black and white. Here, in the semi rural fringes, every property or business falls into the category of being completely digitally disenfranchised with no broadband connection at all.

The irony is that BT's Superfarce Lancashire is now claiming we are 'enabled', and so from the point of BDUK, the job of Superfarce Lancashire in our area is complete, and the vast sums of money paid to BT simply to upgrade its existing urban network have magically helped close the digital divide...

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

The issue really is that BT Superfarce do not really have a plan for us. All the money from Lancashire county council is going to BT. If you ask for a detailed map of exactly which areas have been covered and which cabinets have been enabled or any other geographical data,  they either don't answer you, or cite commercial confidentiality for refusing to tell you anything.

Having been battling this problem since 2010, our small community has a 'Heath Robinson' setup installed on a shoestring budget that delivers rudimentary broadband to a significant number of the community who otherwise would have no connection at all. We had hoped that BT Superfarce would change that.

It hasn't.

Our challenge now as a community, is how to bring sustainable, reasonably fast broadband (50Mbps+) to such a significant and digitally disenfranchised area, especially without the benefit of any of the multi-million pound subsidy that BT has been getting.

Even as little as a five-figure amount could help transform the connections here.

It gets worse though, since in order to connect, we do not have the economies of scale that would allow our network connections to be cost effective, especially when BT's control of the underlying infrastructure is effectively pricing us out of being able to make that connection.

There is a reason that BT seems very reluctant to bring any speed more than 2 Mbps to those businesses in particular - who are within range of the exchange or cabinet. Protectionism. BT are afraid of reducing the revenue they are generating from businesses who are currently forced to operate on very expensive leased lines for any decent service.

We as a community are working on making another connection, but the overt economic suppression of Altnets looks set to provide BT with an ongoing monopoly position, and eventually ensure that the limited capability infrastructure - now being installed using £1.2bn+ of public money remains firmly in place simply to support the profitability of BT - but at the expense of the UK as a whole.

BDUK have simply handed the keys to our henhouse over to the fox, and then used our money to pay him to kill the chickens.

chris conder
10th March 2014

The councils don't seem to have any idea how to allocate funding, and have fallen for the BT hype. BT have to supply phone lines to every home, which they do. Now the trick is to keep broadband running on those old phone lines so they can get more money in. They can do this for the majority, and provide what they call 'superfast'. This isn't going to get much faster and isn't going to be much good in another few years, but its ok for now for most. The real problem is that it is no good for anyone on old or damaged lines, or on long line lengths. This is opening up a whole new digital divide, and we'll never get the savings from digital that government want until everyone has a fit for purpose connection. this can only be achieved through fibre in many cases. BT won't do fibre to the home (despite the hype) and so many are left out.

That is why it is vital to get alt nets into action, to stimulate competition and to get the hardest to reach a decent service, otherwise they are condemned to non existent mobile or expensive satellites.

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