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Politics and the Top 4 Myths of a Delayed UK Superfast Broadband Rollout

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 (9:53 am) - Score 903

Many positive things came out of the NAO and Public Accounts Committee’s recent efforts to pick apart BT and the government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme (here) but not all were helpful. In particular there are four myths about the projects aims and delays that continue to persist despite being largely inaccurate.

The reason for writing this short piece is simply because we keep seeing the same statements and claims being regurgitated by newspapers and others. As a result our purpose here is to clarify the four most common misconceptions about BDUK, some of which only came into being after the NAO and PAC gave birth to them.

1. BDUK Was Setup to Help Rural Areas Get Superfast Broadband

Semi-wrong. Certainly the BDUK scheme will help many rural areas get access to a faster connection but its original aim was to make superfast (25Mbps+) speeds available to “90% of people in each local authority area” by 2015 (the date itself tended to vary between March 2015 and the end of 2015) and yet most of what people would consider to be truly rural (countryside) actually exists in that last 10% (note: Population and Geographic coverage are two very different things).

In other words the 10-20% coverage gap that BDUK was designed to fill, which exists between how far the commercial sector can push fibre optic based broadband (roughly around 70%-80% coverage between BT, KC and Virgin Media etc. – depending upon whose statistics you believe) and the extra bit to reach 90% through BDUK, mostly appears to consist of sub-urban areas, larger towns and big villages.

Now of course the target has recently been lifted to 95% but, in our opinion, it wasn’t originally setup with rural areas at the forefront; no matter what the politicians might have said.

2. Areas Helped by BDUK Would Never Have Gotten Superfast Broadband

Semi-wrong. It’s arguably more accurate to say that most of the related “intervention areas” under BDUK, where commercial investment has so far failed to reach, might not have gotten superfast broadband for another 5 years+ had the investment of state aid not existed.

In fact some people argue that many of the upgrades would have still happened anyway and that BDUK simply helped the work to be conducted sooner. BT’s £2.5bn commercial rollout of FTTC/P, which will complete next spring 2014, expects to cover 66% of the UK. But it’s our view that many of the neglected areas would still have been big enough to push that figure well beyond 66% over future years (i.e. without BDUK money).

Certainly BDUK will help to bring the service into many areas that truly might not have benefitted but others would probably still have been upgraded; it always comes down to a question of time, money and demand.

3. The Original Goal was 100% UK Superfast Broadband Coverage

Wrong. It was stated during the Public Accounts Committee event that the government’s original ambition was to cover 100% of the United Kingdom with superfast broadband and that they have since scaled this back to 90%, which was news to us and many others who have been watching this industry on a daily basis for many years. At no time has any of the current coalition (Conservative/LibDem) or previous Labour government’s set an official target for “100%” coverage of superfast broadband.

In fact the figure of 90% was the current coalitions government’s first official target and, prior to the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives only talked very generally about delivering “100Mbps broadband across most of the population” by 2017 (here). The previous Labour government was arguably even more ambiguous and made reference to an ambition of “making possible superfast broadband for the vast majority of Britain” (here), though they never defined “superfast“. The LibDems didn’t really have much in the way of a clearly defined broadband policy.

It’s possible that some people could have been confused by either the 2Mbps Universal Service Commitment (USC) or Europe’s aim to make superfast broadband (30Mbps+) available to every household by 2020. But otherwise the UK itself has never had such a firm 100% target. Words like “most” and “vast majority” do not equal 100%.

4. BDUK is Delayed by 22 Months (Roughly 2 Years)

Semi-wrong. Ever since the National Audit Office (NAO) remarked in July 2013 that BDUK was running 2 years late (here) we’ve been repeatedly subjected to comments like this one in major newspapers and other media outlets, “Ministers this summer pushed the goal of 95% of UK properties getting “superfast” broadband back to 2017.” No they didn’t.

Firstly you can’t delay the target of 95% because it was only set at the end of June 2013 and also represents an expanded reach from the prior goal of 90% (here). Admittedly BDUK is running around a year or so later than it should have been, mostly due to EU competition concerns and UK administrative delays, but in truth it’s not as far off the mark as some people might assume.

Officially the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has said, “around 88 per cent of the country will have access to superfast broadband by December 2015, with an estimated 90 per cent getting [fixed line] superfast coverage by early 2016“. In other words it will be about 2% off the original 90% target by the end of 2015, which actually doesn’t seem all that bad given the huge scale and complications of the project.

In fact some groups, such as telecoms analyst Point Topic, optimistically anticipate that the government might actually exceed 90% by the end of 2015 (here). But take such predictions with a huge pinch of salt because estimates and real-world experiences often differ significantly. However the point remains that the situation doesn’t look nearly so bad as some have claimed.

Now we do want to stress that this is not an article intended to diagnose the rights or wrongs of BDUK itself, which is perhaps a far from perfect approach to solving the problem of national broadband performance and coverage (it would take a very long time to delve into all of that). We have merely sought to highlight four of the seemingly most common misconceptions about the scheme and hope that some of you will find this insight useful.

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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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