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Broadband Delivery UK Gets New CEO and Date for GBP10m Competitive Fund

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014 (8:10 am) - Score 968

The Government’s Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, confirmed during a meeting yesterday that the former Commercial Director of the London 2012 Olympics Organising Committee, Christopher Townsend, would now lead its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project. A launch date for the new £10m Competitive Fund for rural areas was also revealed.

At present the BDUK project aims to make fixed line superfast broadband (25Mbps+) ISP services available to 95% of the country by 2017 (rising to 99% by 2018 with mobile and fixed wireless solutions), although its first traunch of £530m in public funding has, save for admin costs, been almost entirely scooped up by BT during a process where all of the operator’s rivals dropped out over a mix of economic and competition concerns.

Since then the central UK Government has allocated a further £250m to its BDUK project (here), which is intended to focus upon helping to pass the final 10% or so of the country with a superfast broadband service (i.e. the first £530m allocation aims to reach 90% by around the end of 2015 or early 2016).

But last year a series of scathing reports from the National Audit Office (here), Public Accounts Committee (here) and various other groups forced the Department for Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) to re-organise spending of the £250m around a more commercial focus (here). In fairness not all of the heavy criticism was fair or accurate (here) but some of it certainly was.

At this stage we still don’t know the specifics of how that £250m will be spent but more than a few observers still expect BT to be the main beneficiary and indeed much of the news we’ve covered from Local Authorities in recent months appears to suggest a similar outcome, with most appearing to look towards BT for any future expansion plans.

Never the less DCMS has spent the past few months re-shuffling its entire BDUK office around a more commercial focus and the appointment of Christopher Townsend, whom will receive a salary and bonuses worth £200,000 per annum, is only the latest development in that on-going drive.

Chris Townsend, CEO of BDUK, said:

Ensuring that broadband can reach businesses and consumers across the country is one of the most important policies in Government. Faster connections will improve the way people live, work and spend their leisure time. I look forward to starting my new role as chief executive of BDUK and building on the good work being done to get superfast broadband to people all over the UK.”

Meanwhile yesterday’s meeting, which we first highlighted on the 4th January 2014 (here), was also focused on discussing the Government’s new £10m Competitive Fund to help the most remote rural areas receive better broadband access.

The fund broadly aims to “test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas“, which could include “enhanced mobile services, new fixed technologies and alternative approaches to structuring financial support, working closely with the communications industry“ (i.e. fixed wireless 4G, Satellite, FTTH and FTTC). Mobile operators are likely to be among the primary beneficiaries.

Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, said:

If we want to ensure that all communities can benefit then we need to think imaginatively about alternative technology, and the pilots enabled by the £10m fund will be instrumental in helping us overcome the challenges of reaching the final 5% of premises.”

A short press release has revealed that the new fund will open to applications from pilot projects on 17th March 2014, although £10 million is just a tiny drop in the ocean for remote rural communities where populations are typically sparse and the land extremely wide.

Meanwhile some might see the new investment as a watered down replacement for DEFRA’s £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), which has struggled to help the same final 5-10% of rural areas gain access to a “fibre broadband” based service; mostly due to a seemingly deliberate lack of necessary speed and coverage data from BT and related local authorities (here).

At the end of the day the country’s broadband infrastructure is improving and a number of reports, such as those from Ofcom and various other analysts, have indicated that this is occurring at a much more rapid pace than many other EU states. As a result more and more ordinary consumers, most of whom just want a decent connection and tend to pay very little attention to the underlying infrastructure, are able to access better connections. But how future proof the dominant hybrid-fibre (FTTC) approach is remains somewhat open to debate, although VDSL Vectoring, G.Fast and FTTdp do show some promise.

On the other hand the last 10% of rural areas have yet to see much in the way of an improvement and many promising schemes have been slowed, stalled or scuttled by BDUK and the RCBF’s existing approach. The question now is what kind of tangible improvement will all of these changes actually make or will BT continue to take the lion’s share, with many councils appearing to be too risk averse to consider alternatives.

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Mark Jackson
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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10 Responses
  1. Avatar 3G Infinity says:

    “the pilots enabled by the £10m fund will be instrumental in helping us overcome the challenges of reaching the final 5% of premises.”

    Why does Maria Miller think we need more pilots? We don’t need more proof of concepts, there are plenty of solutions there today that could deliver 10 thru 30Mbps into those rural areas – they just need funding to make sense. Ie cover the capex up front, recover some of that over a 5 year period and then transfer ownership of the remainder of the network with a balloon payment (latter gives ISP incentive to maximise uptake to pay for the final bit). Former jump starts the biggest hurdle, capex to put it into the ground or air. Simples.

    1. Avatar gerarda says:

      You are forgetting of course that BT do not have a solution – therefore no solution exists.

    2. Avatar PhilT says:

      The lack of a vibrant market in “Final 10%” solutions is obvious. If they’re just uneconomic, as you imply, then a pilot to demonstrate the delivered cost and service level in a real world deployment would be worthwhile to inform BDUK on what costs and service levels are realistic.

      Currently I would say they run the risk of putting money into “South Yorkshire Digital Region” scenarios. Unless there are say three widespread deployments of alternative solutions out there in the wild that prove they can attract customers and provide service at a rate and cost acceptable to all parties on a sustained basis.

    3. Or, PhilT, they could ask some of the many, many altnets in the country who have done commercial deployments. Or ask some of the many, many altnets and larger operators in other countries.

      There are literally hundreds of thousands of real-world deployments of technologies like fixed wireless, 4G, FTTP – we don’t need more trials. We know how much these technologies cost to roll out, or can make a very well-educated guess.

      If there were novel technologies involved then maybe it’d be worth having a trial. But these aren’t novel technologies. They’re well-understood technologies with proven, demonstrated and commercially exploited business models.

      All this talk of 5%, 10%, 90% – it’s irrelevant. Following these goals will not result in a rational broadband infrastructure. That requires a different approach, and that’s what government doesn’t understand (because nobody in BDUK has telecoms or broadband experience or knowledge).

    4. Avatar gerarda says:

      “and that’s what government doesn’t understand (because nobody in BDUK has telecoms or broadband experience or knowledge).” and also because they have been fed misinformation for years by lobbyists masquerading as telecoms experts. The myth that wireless cannot be superfast being one example.

  2. Avatar CrazyLazy says:

    The latest poll here is going to be interesting consider BT like to claim they have “SUPERFAST” broadband available to well over 50% of the UK already.

  3. Avatar MikeW says:

    I for one am looking forward to seeing what options come out of these pilots for the final 5%

    This is the part of the country that the ONS declares to live outside built-up areas, and seemingly live in individual houses or clusters of no more than 40 properties or so. Too far for the current style of FTTC to reach, too far for FTTP to be economic, too sparse for even altnets to offer open wholesale access into economically either. The obvious wireless solutions might not offer enough capacity even if they can offer the speed, with the economics being called into question again.

    There is no obvious sweetspot here.

    Two aspects they are looking at are scalability and cost-effectiveness. For all we argue on here about FTTC vs FTTP, there aren’t that many solutions out there that meet these needs. I’m looking forward to seeing what gets put forward.

    1. Avatar gerarda says:

      Why would wireless solutions lack the capacity? The days of their signal needing to be hopped every mile a mile or so are long since gone.

    2. Avatar MikeW says:

      Because wireless is, by definition, a shared medium.

      If a single mast has to cope with too many subscribers, they each get limited capacity – which is then seen as congestion, and is controlled by low monthly allowances and high monthly charges (exactly as we see with current 4G and satellite packages). The high prices & low allowances are meant to put people off – to stop over-subscription.

      The traditional way to increase capacity is to add more transceivers, either by sectorising a single mast (so multiple cells are responsible for different directions from the mast) or by adding new masts. With the extra back haul, that all adds to the operational expense.

      That makes it a hard act to balance, especially to keep up with the rate that download usage on fixed lines is going up by.

      It is an excellent infill solution, but only if we get the number of subscribers right in each area.

    3. Avatar DTMark says:

      Here might be a case in point. 250 properties, 2 phone cabinets both in the worst possible locations for VDSL that they could be.

      The result is that you provide FTTC at both cabinets, meaning some get 80 Meg and some maybe 10 Meg or less (line plant is poor quality) with no upstream speed to speak of, or you do Wireless properly meaning that everyone could see 30Meg+.

      Both cheaper than FTTP, only the latter could deliver “superfast broadband” and neither has any real future because the terms for FTTP (cabinet to home) have been left wide open for BT to exploit their monopoly resulting in charges nobody would or could pay.

      And the comprehensive solution chosen was… to do one of the two cabinets.

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