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UPD BT Criticised as Scottish Rural Action Seeks Better Broadband Policy

Friday, September 9th, 2016 (9:28 am) by Mark Jackson (Score 845)
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The non-profit Scottish Rural Action group has published a new report that points to “serious failings” in Scotland’s existing roll-out of “superfast broadband” services with BT and calls for 5 major policy changes, which they say would establish an “ultrafast” (300Mbps+) model for rural areas.

At present the £410m Digital Scotland project with Openreach (BT) has already made its FTTC/P based “fibre broadband” network available to 85% of premises in Scotland and they’re now working towards the next goal of 95% by December 2017, although the more rural Highland and Islands (HIE) region alone currently only expects to hit 84% by the end of this year.

A recent report from Audit Scotland (here) appeared to confirm that “good progress” was being made, although it also said that there was still a lot more work to do “particularly in improving download speeds in rural areas.” On top of that they highlighted the need for a “clear plan” to boost take-up and deliver on the new pledge for 100% coverage by 2021.

By comparison SRA’s new report (PDF) is somewhat less forgiving and accuses BT of using the strategy to “prop up its decaying copper network” and of “reducing its expenditure on duct with the result that the net value of its asset base is beginning to decrease.” Furthermore it claims that faults on BT’s network have increased due to the “redirection of resources to the NGA rollout.”

SRA Report Statement

This is the time to accept that BT has misjudged its strategy and that copper-reliant technology will no longer meet the needs of Scottish rural communities.

Fibre to the Cabinet [FTTC] is an inefficient methodology in rural communities and the red herring of VDSL is fit only to provide BT with a way to continue to leverage its monopoly of copper exchange lines.

Rural Scotland’s economy will face many challenges in the next few years and there is uncertainty over future business support, especially in the agricultural sector and in rural development post-Brexit.

The Scottish Government needs to ensure that rural connectivity is not an additional challenge, by establishing an ultrafast model (defined by Ofcom as more than 300 Mbps) for the most remote and rural areas, supporting real futureproof networks so that the rural area will not be marginalised again in 10 years, by which time all applications will be designed for hyper networks.

Apparently the report was collated by the SRA’s working group, consisting of more than 30 individuals and community groups, who are all said to be “working hard on a voluntary basis to deliver this essential service to their locality.”

They feel strongly that the systems need to change if we are ever going to see equity between rural and urban communities and delivery of the Scottish Government’s commitment to superfast broadband to 100% of premises in Scotland,” said Amanda Burgauer, Chair of the SRA.

In keeping with that the SRA’s Broadband Working Group has proposed five recommendations, which it believes would help to improve rural connectivity in Scotland.

The Five SRA Recommendations

1. The Scottish Government should redirect resources to quickly facilitate the provision of community/national backhaul, local backbone networks and community hubs to support access networks. This will prime the pump for Internet Service Providers to provide connectivity either commercially or through community projects, possibly including State Aid-funded projects.

2. The Scottish Government, having made the commitment to reach 100 per cent super-fast coverage, should accept that this is a stepping stone to ultra-fast speeds and ensure that there are clear upgrade paths available to all rural networks.

3. Rural communities should be supported through access to specialist advice according to their needs. This might include business planning, technical advice, help with funding, legal guidance regarding way leaves and other support. There needs to be a mechanism for accessing this support and sharing knowledge amongst community projects in a collaborative way, and not through the current Community Broadband Scotland approach, which has blocked many projects rather than facilitate them.

4. Existing rural broadband and rural initiatives and resources should be coordinated to best respond to rural broadband requirements and overcome obstacles that currently impede rural broadband deployment. These should be addressed and managed by the team responsible for reaching 100 per cent, as a singly managed project, with clear accountability for delivery.

5. There should be a Scottish Broadband Conference, using an Open Space-type of facilitation, that brings together all stakeholders, including Scottish Government, community projects, network providers and suppliers, to evaluate the status quo and share views and solutions.

Some of the suggestions, such as to help provide rural communities with more support (no.3), to establish more coordination (no. 4) and setting up a meeting between all of the stakeholders (no.5), seem to be fairly logical.

Likewise the idea of encouraging the Scottish Government to start thinking about “ultra-fast” connectivity (no.2) would actually be in keeping with the current direction of travel within the EU. Even the UK Government has quietly begun to talk about it (here), although we’re admittedly still a very long way away from seeing a firm strategy.

However the issue of backhaul (no.1) is more complex and the recommendation isn’t entirely clear about its idea for “community hubs to support access networks.” In some ways this issue is already being tackled by Ofcom’s move to free up access to BT’s Cable Ducts / Poles (DPA) and their Dark Fibre Access (DFA) measures, although funding and building any new backhaul network for rural areas will always be difficult due to the challenge of getting a return on such investments.

Never the less, supplying capacity to remote rural networks is a big part of the battle, but the situation is improving and today there are many more methods (inc. Microwave) for getting capacity to such locations. Whether or not new backhaul links should also be built and managed by the state is an altogether more complicated question and one that Ofcom would perhaps need to consider. If it were to happen then there would need to be strict rules to help tackle any competition issues.

UPDATE 6:32pm

BT has given us the following statement.

A BT Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“We’re pleased that the Scottish Rural Action report into broadband has recognised that BT’s approach of using a mix of technologies to reach the greatest number of people possible and is on track to provide more than 95 per cent superfast broadband coverage in Scotland by the end of the Digital Scotland superfast Broadband programme. Audit Scotland confirmed this in their recent review of the project.

Today, more than two million Scottish homes and businesses can order fibre broadband. On speeds, more than 85 per cent of households in Scotland are able to access superfast broadband speeds in excess of 30Mbps, according to the independent website Think broadband.

Across rural Scotland, fibre networks over land and sea have helped many locations to benefit, including Shetland, Perthshire and the Scottish Borders, for example, with more to come. In the Highlands and Islands, more than 188,000 premises can now benefit from faster fibre broadband.

BT has invested more than £1bn a year in Openreach, including more than £3bn in rolling out superfast broadband across the UK.

BT continues to invest in new, innovative technologies to reach more people, including the long-reach VDSL trial in North Tolsta, in the Western Isles.

Openreach will be deploying more FTTP in the coming years but it is important to note that it is only one technology amongst many and that other technologies can also deliver ultrafast speeds.

Countries such as Australia are following the UK’s lead in terms of deploying a mix of technologies. This approach helps to ensure a rapid deployment as well as low prices for consumers and businesses.

On service, while Openreach continues to meet or exceed the 60 performance targets set by Ofcom, we realise there is more to do and customer service remains a priority. Hundreds of engineers have been recruited across Scotland and we are fixing repairs and installing new lines quicker than before.”

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22 Responses
  1. FibreFred

    Another set of experts reporting on what should be done 🙂

  2. craski

    It is all too easy to criticise and I have criticized BDUK & Digital Scotland plenty myself in the past myself but using technology like FTTC and G.FAST that are so sensitive to line length has to be the wrong way to approach the roll out in rural communities with low population density / km2.

    In my rural area, it isnt hard to work out that even with LR-VDSL on all cabinets there will still be many houses outwith that extended coverage footprint and while LR-VDSL may help solve a problem in the short term, what is the upgrade path for those on ~10Mbps lines when the lucky ones within a few hundred meters of the cabinets get G.FAST in future?

    • Gadget

      what’s at issue is the time/cost/coverage balance – with a constrained cost the decision was taken (especially considering the value for money criteria) to maximise what could be covered and at a sensible timescale. The ongoing debate is to ensure that the minimum number get “left-behind” with whatever resources are available.

    • craski

      Understood. I think final 5% is often spoken about with a perception that it is OK but if you are in the final 5% (or unsure if you are in the final 5% as BDUK plans in Scotland are not published beyond 6 months) it is very much not OK as 5% of the UK population is still millions of people.

      Number 1 above is key for me to help communities help themselves. In rural locations the cost of installing a 100Mb leased line and monthly charges >£600 make it hard to get local access schemes off the ground. If affordable fibre based back-haul like FTTPoD was made available at fair prices, many more communities could benefit from the BDUK cabinets and extend fixed wireless into the more rural areas themselves.

    • GNewton

      We recently spent some time in rural Scotland, and there was no broadband, nor mobile, available at that premise. The nearest village was 8 miles away. There were copper-based phone lines. This begs the question: How have they managed to get the phone lines into these remote places in the first place? How have they managed to get power lines to these remote in the first place? Could any of these past conditions be replicated for fibre line installs?

    • Stephen

      GNewton

      Exactly. Most Scottish rural properites have phone lines, there is an existing network of telegraph poles and ducting. Why have these not been used more?
      If companies like Cityfibre can build an FTTP network without the need for street cabinets then why can’t Openreach?

    • FibreFred

      It’s all there if you look GNewton, it was all paid for by the government and local authorities at the time, so (if you were around) you would have paid for it all via taxes

      Stephen, BT don’t need (or use) street cabs for FTTP

    • Craski

      At times it seems like BTOR dont want to push fibre any deeper than they absolutely have to in order to meet minimum coverage targets set today. As in, the deeper they push the fibre the less money they can charge in future to upgrade that part of the network.

      Not so long ago, FTTrN held some promise for rural areas but that has gone pretty quite recently too.

  3. New_Londoner

    @Stephen
    City Fibre concentrates on cities, and mainly on business premises within those cities. So very different circumstances to rural Scotland, or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.

    @GNewton
    As you are no doubt aware, there is no technical barrier preventing the delivery of fibre to your isolated property, there is however a pretty significant economic one! Where the line is drawn on what is spent per property for the proposed USO will be an interesting debate, but I’d hazard a guess it wouldn’t cover this property, which I suspect may not have mains gas or sewerage either.

    • GNewton

      @New_Londoner: I never said that there is a technical barrier (except maybe for BT, but that’s another story). My question simply was about how these remote premises in Scotland got their telecoms in the first place. And no, I am not referring to the GPO times where is paid by the government, because, at least in this particular case, the copper line was provided in a post-GPO era. Why is copper cheaper to install than fibre, assuming neither one existed before? As was mentioned by Stephen, it should be easier now since the ducts, or more likely, the telegraph poles, are already in place.

      It is funny that someone like you is so concerned about the costs when you had no objections when lots of taxpayer’s money was thrown at BT via dubious BDUK schemes for no ROI (other than for some to have their VDSL a bit earlier).

    • TheFacts

      @GN – to put in a new line with existing copper infrastructure is presumably easier/cheaper than a piece of fibre which will have to connect into all the way back to an appropriate node.

      With copper it is ‘just’ connecting to the nearest appropriate copper DP or joint box.

      [not sure that BT has any technical barriers to fibre, has loads of it across the UK]

    • GNewton

      @TheFacts: I was talking to New_Londoner.

      Those remote premises we visited were on long exchange-only copper-lines. With your notion to have the government pay for a nationwide fibre-rollout there shouldn’t be any issue for you anyway. For the rest of us, living in the real world, installation costs matter. However, it often makes sense to do fibre rather than copper when there isn’t much of a cost difference for installing those long EO lines, it’s more economic to use fibre then, especially in the long term.

    • FibreFred

      You obviously didn’t understand what TheFacts just said

  4. fastman

    craki the biggest issue for FTTRN is Power – so you prefer a fixed wireless solution then – the question re phone line is USO – Openreach has to provide phone service as part of Condition of Licence

    • LeJackal

      Using PON removes the need for power in the field, so that’s one less issue.

    • FibreFred

      Why don’t City fibre or another provider use PON to these locations?

    • Craski

      @fastman
      Yes, powering FTTRN seems to be one of the hurdles but still, very little news on that over past 6 months.
      I have a fixed wireless link and it works great, IMO it is far easier for a community to install fixed wireless than dig in their own fibre, one of the main barriers to these schemes is lack of suitable back-haul.
      It is time to move on with the USO, times are changing. Most want better broadband and dont really care if land line is provided by a copper pair or VOIP via some other form of data connection.

    • LeJackal

      @FibreFred Presumably because they don’t have pre-existing backhaul, ducts or poles.

      We’ll see how the new passive sharing helps things. Companies that don’t have a copper network to sweat will be far more inclined to spend on fibre.

  5. fastman

    there are number of communities who a working with openeach by self digging as part of a community fibre partnership

    • GNewton

      Yeah right. Can you count more than a dozen? You made this statement before, and never answered my simple questions on this. They virtually have no impact to the issues of resolving rural broadband problems.

  6. FibreFred

    Hope you don’t hold your breath for too long on that front.

  7. fastman

    le jackal — Companies that don’t have a copper network to sweat will be far more inclined to spend on fibre. really !!!!!

    no proof of that currently

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