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UPDATE2 Lords Inquiry Calls for UK to Deploy Robust Fibre Optic Broadband

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 (8:39 am) - Score 937

The House of Lords Select Committee Inquiry into the UK government’s superfast broadband plan has published its first report, which criticises the lack of “strategy” and failure to focus upon “eliminating” the rural digital divide. Crucially it calls for the roll-out of a “robust and resilient national network” that should be linked primarily by open access fibre optic lines; but only if home owners pay for it first.

The current Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) plan, which has a budget of £530m (could rise to £830m by 2017 if necessary), aims for 90% of people in the UK to be within reach of a superfast broadband (24Mbps+) service by 2015 (the last 10% get speeds of at least 2Mbps) and for us to have “the best superfast broadband network in Europe“. Additional funding will also come from the EU, local councils and the private sector.

A separate £150m Urban Broadband Fund (UBF) has also been established to boost superfast broadband services in selected cities, while another £150m has been setup for the Mobile Infrastructure Project, which will help to make the next generation of “4GMobile Broadband services available to “at least 98%” of the country by the end of 2017.

But the Select Committee report warns that the government is “preoccupied with speed” rather than focusing upon access and the need to create a “‘future proof’ national network which is built to last“. It further warns that the related investment, without change, could end up becoming a “missed opportunity” by delivering improvements “for those with already good connections“. Happily it also states that it is “not too late to change course“, although to do so now would be very challenging.

Lord Inglewood, Committee Chairman, said:

The Government is quite right to make broadband a policy priority – barely an aspect of our lives isn’t touched in some way by the internet, and developments look set to continue apace in the future. A whole host of services will increasingly be delivered via the internet – including critical public services – and without better provision for everyone in the UK this will mean that people are marginalised or excluded altogether.

If broadcast services move to be delivered via the internet [IPTV] for example, as we believe they may be, then key moments in national life such as the Olympics could be inaccessible to communities lacking a better communications infrastructure.

Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The Government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the Government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”

To resolve all of these issues the Committee has set out a series of interesting proposals, which centres itself upon the creation of a “robust and resilient national network, bringing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community” (e.g. FTTP). On the surface this sounds similar to the Digital Hub idea that the government themselves first coined back in 2010 (here), although the report states that “since then, the idea appears to have drifted somewhat from their plans“.

Indeed most people think that the original “Digital Hub” idea was effectively identical to BT’s superfast FTTC supporting street cabinets, although today’s report proposes something much more stringent for its Open Access Fibre-Optic Hubs.

Report Explanation for an Open Access Fibre-Optic Hub

[This] refers to a physical object—in all likelihood a box—situated in the vicinity of a community. Its job is to act as a waystation between that community and the broadband infrastructure that spreads out across the rest of the country. Running into the hub from the wider network would be an ample number of fibre-optic cables, which in the first instance, would be ‘dark,’ in the sense that no data traffic will yet be running over them. The reason for this may be, for example, that it has not yet been connected in any way to the properties in the community around it.

An important feature of the hub, however, is that the dark fibre running into it should be open access; so that anybody is permitted to build a link between a premises in the community and a fibre in the hub by installing their own passive or active electronic equipment in between, and then rent the existing fibre they are connecting to, which extends the connection from the premises out from the hub and onto the wider network. This would enable any type of compatible access network to be built by any local community, SME or infrastructure provider.

Europe also believes in open access to Dark Fibre lines (here) and this is one of the reasons why some BDUK funding approvals have been held-up, although Ofcom’s recent review of the UK’s £2bn business telecoms market (here) stopped short of recommending truly open access to BT’s dark fibre and instead proposed “that less intrusive remedies are likely to achieve similar benefits for consumers” without “adding costs and encouraging inefficient entry” into the market.

Summary of the Committee’s Recommendations

* Ofcom should consider employing its Article 12 powers to oblige infrastructure owners to provide open access to dark fibre at the level of the cabinet, and active and passive access, together with rights to install and collocate active equipment on relevant links at the level of the exchanges and other nodes.

* We urge the industry to work to ensure there is an organisation with the capacity to act as an intermediary between an array of separate network providers and larger-scale ISPs. We note that the existence and effectiveness of such an organisation would be vital to the success of an open access fibre-optic hub model. [the Committee is aware that INCA are already attempting to do this]

* The Government should consider, not least in light of the EU Commission’s current consultation and the issues this raises concerning open access to dark fibre as a condition of State Aid, what the implications might be for broadband policy of a new ‘house with a tail’ model emerging in which the property owner becomes responsible for the construction and maintenance of their own final drop.

* We recommend that consideration should be given over time by the Government, Ofcom and the industry as to when and under what conditions fibre switchover would be appropriate and what implications it would have. [This means that in the future a ‘Digital Switchover’ style move from the existing/old copper to new fibre optic infrastructure might become necessary]

* The Government should undertake a detailed costing of the Committee’s proposal, not least because it removes the final mile – the most expensive per capita component of the network – from the costs requiring public subsidy [See ‘house with a tail’ above]

* That the Government pay urgent attention to the way public funds are being distributed, particularly the operation of the Rural Community Broadband Fund

* The Government & industry should consider the long term possibility of switching terrestrial [TV] broadcast from spectrum to the internet [IPTV].

Clearly there are a lot of noteworthy recommendations in the full report (linked at the bottom) and most would have a significant impact upon the government’s existing strategy and BT regulation. For example, the idea of shifting some of the costs for the “final drop” into homes (i.e. “new ‘house with a tail’ model“) could burden some rural households with a significant extra cost (it’s always hard to estimate these things but some might have to pay up to £1,000 to £2,000 or possibly more – depending upon operator, location and technology).

The focus upon providing open access to Dark Fibre, which Ofcom and BT don’t want to see happen, is another area of contention but one that will need to be resolved before the European Commission (EC) is comfortable enough to grant further Local Broadband Plan (LBP) approvals for the UK. Overall BT looks set to face stiffer regulation, with most of the report’s recommendations appearing to pick apart access to the operator’s national telecoms network.

A BT Openreach Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

This report calls for fibre broadband to be brought within reach of as many communities as possible via an open network. That is already happening with BT making fibre available to a further four million homes alone whilst the committee has deliberated. This new network – which already passes 11 million homes and which will soon pass millions more – is open to all ISPs on an equal basis and more than 50 ISPs are using it.

Companies can also lay their own fibre using BT’s ducts and poles [PIA] should they wish so there is plenty of room for competition. This level of open access is unparalleled in Europe and so the UK is well placed to have one of the best super-fast networks in the continent by 2015.”

Officially BT won’t say too much, although a source within the operator told ISPreview.co.uk that the report appeared to be out of touch with the real world (e.g. expecting home owners to pay for the construction of their own last mile connectivity) and suggested that it had a blurred, instead of an “alternative“, vision of the market.

The government now has up to 3 months to review the committee’s proposals before reporting back before the end of this year.

Lords Select Committee (Communications) – Superfast Broadband Inquiry

UPDATE 1:01pm

The Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), which works to support the development of next generation internet access around the UK and is attempting to establish an alternative group of altnet ISPs, has given its response to today’s report.

INCA Statement

INCA members have welcomed the House of Lords report ‘Broadband for All – An Alternative Vision’ as a very useful contribution to the debate about how we get the best next generation broadband infrastructure available to as many of our citizens and communities, as quickly as possible. Two areas highlighted in the Lords Report are particularly significant: open access and community hubs.

The Lords Report proposes that state funding should only go to operators that are prepared to provide open access down to the passive layer – i.e. dark fibre. This is strongly supported by INCA members, many of whom are keen to contribute towards building this new national infrastructure, but only on terms that don’t disadvantage them in competition with BT. The European Commission shares this perspective as demonstrated in the new European state aid guidelines published in June 2012 (See INCA’s commentary).

The original ideas for community hubs were put forward by groups developing community broadband projects, often in the most challenging areas for extending broadband reach. By ensuring that all communities have access to fibre backhaul, accessible on a non-discriminatory basis, local schemes can flourish, stimulating demand, raising investment and partnering with the private sector. The government itself acknowledged this in the plan ‘Britain’s Superfast Broaband Future’ published in December 2010, but this approach seems to have become sidelined in the subsequent BDUK process.

Hyperoptic, an urban focused fibre optic broadband ISP, has also added a few remarks of its own.

Dana Tobak, Managing Director of Hyperoptic, said:

The news today from the Lords Communications Committee that states the Government’s broadband strategy needs to focus on reach over speed suggests there is room for compromise, when there is none. The Government should focus its strategy and funds on rural coverage; its aim to achieve access for 100% of the UK by 2015 should remain a primary focus for them. However, if the UK wants to be a global broadband leader, then we cannot just park the issue of speed. While the Government focuses on expansion, the need for speed is already being addressed by innovative ISPs that are starting to rollout hyper-fast services in the UK.

Clearly, addressing the speed and reach issues simultaneously are too big a task for the Government to swallow. So how about the Government just focuses on access in rural areas and leaves the issue of speed to ISPs like us? There is one thing we ask, please don’t trivialise the issue of speed – it’s just as important as coverage and a requisite if the UK ever wants to compete in the global broadband arena.”

UPDATE 1:18pm

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), a land owners lobby group for England and Wales, has also welcomed most but not all of today’s report.

CLA Deputy President, Henry Robinson, said:

Although hundreds of millions of pounds is being poured into building a better broadband network, rural areas are largely ignored by the major telecoms companies which compete to roll out faster speeds to areas that already have a good service. Recognition by the Lords Committee that access is more important than speed is extremely welcome.

With only two out of the nine bidders for local authorities to choose from, BDUK has a flawed procurement process. The concerns raised by the Lords, coupled with those already expressed by the CLA, should force the Government to intervene.”

But Robinson noted that the CLA did not agree with the Lords’ recommendation that using fibre optic is the best approach for delivering broadband infrastructure. “The CLA advocates a patchwork quilt model that uses the most appropriate technologies for a certain area, rather than using a single technology. An over-reliance on a single model is limiting the Government’s chance of meeting its 2015 deadlines,” he said.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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37 Responses
  1. Chris Conder says:

    I would far rather pay an Altnet a couple of thousand pounds to get a fibre to my business than pay £2-300 thousand pounds for BT and its ‘excess construction charges’ for FTTP.
    I would far rather support an Altnet than an incumbent who persists in calling FTTC ‘fibre broadband’ and still tries to convince everyone that copper can deliver a solution for all. We know it can’t. All it can do is faster for a few near the cabinets.
    As for PIA, if you read the small print its often cheaper to dig your own. The excess charges on that are excessive too.
    Well done the Lords, for their report.

    1. bob says:

      Coppper in the local loop is a legacy technology and we should not really be relying onm it for future Broadband. WE should be rolling out FTTP in the Urban areas and only deplying FTTC to the rural areas.

  2. New_Londoner says:

    As posted on TBB, this smacks cf something driven with too much input from academics, consultants and other lobbyists, and not enough from the real-world. The reference to point-to-point fibre being a case in point (no pun intended)!

    Rather than lots of hand wringing etc, how about looking at the practicalities. For example, lovely though B4RN is, how many premises have been connected to date? At what cost and over what time period? Is this affordable nationally (who pays?) and can we really afford to wait that long? How many additional premises now have access to FTTC if required in the meantime?

    And as to the nonsensical fibre hubs, what about the back haul? Who will connect the last mile? All very well in the countryside through farmers’ fields (assuming the CLA ever get their act together), but what about in towns and cities? I bet the local authorities will be delighted if we all start digging trenches for our individual fibres!

    Perhaps their Lordships should have another crack at this, but keep the theorists firmly at arms length next time. Luckily the market is busily delivering for the majority of the country in the meantime, and BDUK will hopefully do much of the rest if the state aid approvals ever get fixed.

    1. zemadeiran says:

      You have an extremely negative view on the issue’s of physical access.

      Where there is a will there is a way. How about the sewer systems in towns and cities?

      Come on, copper is dead and you know it.

    2. DTMark says:

      Ah, the ThinkBroadband article entitled ‘The other way to provide broadband for everyone’ worded to cause people to infer that we have already thought of a way of doing this?


    3. zemadeiran says:

      If they new what we know, then we would know what they know…

  3. SlowSomerset says:


  4. Chris Conder says:

    The market is not delivering to the people, the market is just cherrypicking and putting cabinets near other cabinets to get faster broadband to the ones who already have a connection. That’s fine, but they shouldn’t get public money to do it. The funding and support should go to the innovators, and the Lords are quite right in saying that is what needs to be done. The towns and cities will soon get decent connections once the altnets with their fibre start harvesting their customers. You can’t deliver NGA to all through a phone network. The backhaul to the hubs comes from the dark fibre which is all over the place, unused, unlit. The last mile is built by the altnets, but only if they can get access to the dark fibre. The Lords are spot on. B4RN is affordable nationally. It will reincarnate many times if supported. Different solutions to different areas. One thing is constant, people will help themselves if you give them a start. The one thing communities cannot get is an affordable connection to the fibre that already runs past them. The digital parish hubs would sort that problem and enable people to help themselves, or enable businesses to build it for them. Market forces will take care of the rest.

    1. New_Londoner says:

      … Meanwhile the market is delivering at scale to 11 million now, 18 million by 2014. Yes it needs help for the remaining 8-9 million, but this is far more affordable than the academic-led proposal from their Lordships. Just look at Cornwall. To see what can be delivered at scale, even in rural areas.

    2. FibreFred says:

      I’m not sure B4RN is affordable nationally? Surely its niche, it only works because you are doing your own digging on your own land. That doesn’t replicate to the rest of the UK.

      If you had to pay someone to do that work and it wasn’t your land the cost to bring fibre to each of the B4RN premises would be huge I’m sure?

    3. New_Londoner says:

      Applying the current B4RN cost per home nationally comes close to £21bn, and that’s assuming no need to employ contractors, no costs for way leaves to cross private land etc! I’m much happier withe the BDUK contribution for now thanks, let individuals pay to upgrade from FTTC to FTTP if they want it, can justify the cost.

  5. Rob Turner says:

    Have to say I concur with New London, this is of no use in the Real World, its half baked and totally unworkable in my opinion.

  6. DTMark says:

    “Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The Government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy. The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the Government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”

    So true. The BDUK plan document is hilarious and so very deeply flawed from even the first page. Strategy is indeed the thing that was and remains missing.

  7. Somerset says:

    Who are the Engineers on the HoL committee?

  8. SlowSomerset says:

    And it will have to done again in the near future when BT will be after more public funds, of course the BT fanboys won’t agree.

    1. Deduction02 says:

      The BT fanboys dont even know how many people are covered by FTTC

    2. Thursday says:

      BT quote 11M, but you disagree for some reason.

  9. dragoneast says:

    I might be missing something obvious (like a magic wand, perhaps – now there’s a thought, the magic dragon): but I’ve always gathered we live in a property owning (more or less) democracy governed by the rule of law. So you can’t just take or get access to what you’d like (even if you are the government). You either pay (money) or do it by agreement. You can have all the strategy you like, but the devil is in the detail. BDUK at least, whatever its other faults, works within these constraints, as indeed do B4RN and the altnets in their limited ways.

    Now there might be a few commies out there (and even fewer commercial landowners) who see the answer to everything in the abolition of private property (and even fewer I suspect at the head of the queue to hand over the keys to their house and continue to pay the mortgage whilst leaving those nice wise politicians to allocate them a dwelling on the basis of “need”). I can’t see Sky, TT, Virgin, C&W and all those nice owners of dark fibre handing over free access (or any access indeed) out of goodwill to their networks for every Tom, Dick and Harry either.

  10. FibreFred says:

    Why do people (CLA etc) always rollout this tosh about FTTC only giving those who already get a great service a better service? Nice sound bite but backed up by what? I know I currently only get 3Mbps (not great) and FTTC is coming soon so I expect at least 30Mbps+

    I’m sure it will be the same for many others.

    Everyone already knows why Rurals are ignored, why keep banging that drum? Everyone knows the reason, high install costs low returns.

  11. SlowSomerset says:

    So i am Alright Jack then Fibre Fred.

    Don’t forget the BDUK money is supposed to be money left over fron the Digital switchover that was paid for by Tv licence payers also some money is comming from local councils which funny enough I just happen to pay into so expect to have some of it spent in my area.

    1. FibreFred says:

      No I’m saying its obvious why rural areas are a problem, same for other utilities

    2. dragoneast says:

      Well as BDUK have allocated money to your local county council, and they are consulting their local residents and businesses on its expenditure you’ve got exactly that from the BDUK process haven’t you? Unless it’s “I just want the money spent on me” and that would really take the “As long as I’m all right” biscuit. If you are not satisfied with what the county council are doing then you’ve the same redress as every other member of the local electorate. Imperfect perhaps, but no-one has devised any better form of accountability, yet.

  12. zemadeiran says:

    The only way to full-fill this grand scheme would be to either buy back openreach or start a new UK network company.

    BT will hold onto their copper monopoly for as long as they can. I fully support the lords view on how we should move forward and get the job done with future proofing built in from the start.

    How many people would think about living and working out of town if they had the chance to do so? Teleworking should be a national policy in order to reduce pollution, stress, congestion all the while increasing productivity and quality of life for all concerned.

    This will without doubt, increase GB’s bottom line massively.

    Regards to all.

    1. New_Londoner says:

      One myth it’s worth busting is that it’s more environmentally friendly to live in rural areas. Actually the typical carbon footprint is higher as its far less efficient to deliver services to rural areas than urban. There may be other benefits, but a reduction in pollution is not one of them.

    2. zemadeiran says:

      I would disagree with you there…

      Commuting produces large amounts of pollution. Service wise, what are we talking about?

      Parcel deliveries
      Trips for food

      Please add more.

    3. New_Londoner says:

      It’s everything that contributes to your total carbon footprint. It’s higher on average in rural areas, so it can’t be claimed to be more sustainable.

  13. SlowSomerset says:

    But we do have the other utilities don’t we, and while were talking about other utilities we have a powere station practally on our doorstep that is as remote as you can get in Somerset yet the manage to get electricity to every one.
    Also I agree with zemadeiran about BT hanging onto the copper as long as they can as how else will they be able to go after public money later when it will have to be done all over again.

    1. DTMark says:

      I’m guessing that’s because as a society we decided that universal access to electricity was important. We also managed to adopt a standard voltage, too.

      So it was done by the State in part. Also, at the time, the population was a lot lower.

      I’m not sure whether now, if you built a house in the middle of nowhere – say, ten miles from the next nearest one – that you’d get wired up to the grid without having to make a very significant contribution yourself. After all, you were the one who decided to build the house there.

      There is still no meaningful standard definition of what broadband is. 2Mbps is not broadband. 10Mbps seems reasonable. There is a standard definition of superfast broadband @ 30Mbps largely imposed upon us kicking and screaming as we’re dragged into this century. That is however still a low bar.

      Over time rather than building a broadband network we’ve left it to an old phone company to try and shove some kind of service down an unsuitable network with haphazard results both urban and rural.

      To make progress now requires some kind of broadband network to be built with extensibility in mind. Copper does not have extensibility (cue the usual suspects to say that it can do 500Meg – perhaps theoretically, yes, with one cabinet per home)

      It would require the State to facilitate the laying of said network, for example the ducting. It would also require the State to stop taxing people laying fibre and instead incentivise them. It would require recognition that BT was privatised and so is not some kind of utility; that it owns its own assets. Big big mistake, but the government of the day made it and we’re all living with it.

      And still, I think it unreasonable that a fixed line network will reach everywhere. For the one house in the middle of nowhere, or remote hamlets – satellite. For rurals, probably Wi-Fi and/or self-digging to a distribution point. For urbans, fibre to the premises.

      Had the BDUK study started along those priniciples, we might be somewhere by now.

    2. zemadeiran says:

      Well said both of you 🙂

      We seem to be getting somewhere…

    3. FibreFred says:

      Dtmark 256k and above is the definition of broadband has been for years

    4. FibreFred says:

      “To make progress now requires some kind of broadband network to be built with extensibility in mind. Copper does not have extensibility (cue the usual suspects to say that it can do 500Meg – perhaps theoretically, yes, with one cabinet per home)”

      Not sure what the one cabinet per home is supposed to mean but… we already have a broadband network one that as of next year will enable you to have full FTTP where FTTC exists. Why do we need a whole new network?

    5. FibreFred says:

      Everyone talks about getting broadband to rural locations as if its a UK exclusive issue. Large parts of the states and Canada can’t get cable or DSL and have to rely on Sat connections, same for other parts of the world.

  14. SlowSomerset says:

    We are not talking just about hamlets here though are we like you said both rural and urban and plenty of them are still not getting a reasonable service that is fit for modern standards.
    We seem to able to find money for the so called high speed train link that only the well heeled will able to afford to use and also there is the money for bailing out bankers oh and what about the olympics that only really seem to benifit London.
    Its like everything in this country always half hearted and too little too late.

    1. DTMark says:

      From “Carry on up the Khyber” (1968)

      Captain Keene: [news of the native revolt arrives] What do you intend to do, sir?

      Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond: Do? Do? We’re British. We won’t do anything…

      Major Shorthouse: …until it’s too late.

      Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond: Exactly. That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said all day.

    2. zemadeiran says:

      One is highly amused, that is all.

  15. SlowSomerset says:

    Yes DTMark that about sums it up.

  16. Whatever the House of Lords outcome. Northern Ireland is nearly 100 percent superfast, Wales is on the way to deliver 96 percent. Scotland is moving on and is ready to assist self build solutions. The short fall is in England. It is not all about rural it is the Towns (like Tavistock) that are not in any BDUK funding or on any roll-out plan to date.

    The UK Government need to focus more on England as we have no-one as other Countries in the union do, to shout up for us.

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