The Westminster City Council in central London has added its voice to the growing calls for local businesses to be given access to better broadband connectivity, which comes after it was earlier revealed by Ofcom that only 47% of the city’s premises have access to “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) speeds.
The concern appears to stem from a report by the councils Environment Policy and Scrutiny Committee, which was held on Monday and after a little digging we were finally able to find a copy of the related document (here). “[Superfast broadband] coverage is remarkably poor given the intensity of ‘dark fibre’ in the centre of London,” said the report.
However the report also noted that “caution is needed on these statistics as the definition of what constitutes ‘access’ is unclear. For example this term may only relate to premises within direct exchange areas where fibre is being rolled out, rather than actual access to broadband cabinets which are actually connected to fibre.”
All major cities require advanced broadband to compete internationally. Westminster is host to 49,700 enterprises, 65% of which are small or medium sized firms. Connectivity is especially important to cities such as Westminster with a high proportion of high growth firms in diverse sectors such as the media, design, digital and telecommunications. The City Council’s last full Business Survey (2012) identified that nearly half (43%) of businesses in the city conduct the majority of their business online.
The chair of the Environment Policy and Scrutiny Committee, Ian Adams, similarly said that he wishes to “establish why superfast broadband coverage in the city is so low and to discuss ways in which we can work with providers to ensure the situation improves. For the sake of UK PLC, we cannot afford to let a lack of broadband connectivity threaten the ability of businesses in the city to stay competitive in the global market.”
Local firms can of course take advantage of the Government’s Connection Vouchers scheme, which offer grants worth up to £3,000 in order to help get SMEs upgraded to a superfast broadband connection.
But such grants often don’t cover anything like the full cost, especially in dense and complicated urban environments. Meanwhile smaller businesses cannot usually afford the kind of Ethernet or Leased Line style connectivity options that are currently available (note: often cheaper FTTC etc. solutions aren’t available due to Exchange Only Lines).
Similar problems have over the past few months been highlighted by Ofcom, Hyperoptic and the City of London Corporation (here and here). Meanwhile the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (Conservative), also claims to be developing a new strategy that could help to improve the situation (here) and this intends to make affordable superfast broadband available to 99% of London premises by 2018. But so far we’re still waiting to see some real detail on that.
Meanwhile BT are currently trialling a new VDSL based form of Fibre-to-the-Basement (FTTB) and Fibre-to-the-Remote-Node (FTTrN) broadband technology in small parts of central London, which might provide a solution for Exchange Only Lines. But until some form of commercial deployment is detailed then people will continue to raise concerns.
This week the Government’s Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that he is also busy investigating other ways in which Broadband Delivery UK investment could be used to improve the situation. Our sources indicate that a new round of funding could be announced during early February, although this is likely to be aimed more at rural homes than businesses (though there’s always a cross-over).