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BT’s Struggle to Upgrade Broadband in Costly Deep Rural Parts of the UK

Monday, February 10th, 2014 (3:30 am) - Score 1,043
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Competition concerns with the Broadband Delivery UK project have again been raised after BT’s Programme Manager for the £94m Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme in England, Laurent Boon, rejected a call for the parish of Upottery to receive a “fibre broadband” upgrade, which it said would cost the equivalent of £2,000 per property.

Cost remains the key reason why the UK Government hasn’t yet been able to commit to a target of delivering superfast broadband (25Mbps+) speeds across 100% of the country (95% by 2017 is the current goal), although the EU has set a general target of 30Mbps for all by 2020.

Like it or not that last 5%, which most typically represents sparse populations, are very expensive to serve and this is especially true of smaller villages. Upottery is home to around 700 people (it’s not tiny but still at the small end) and BT’s predicted cost to upgrade the area, which in total comes to £500k, could perhaps be done more cheaply by using an alternative.

The Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme will, like all other BDUK projects, be seeking extra funding to expand their reach (the current CDS goal is “around” 90% of local premises by the end of 2016 – here) but some are still likely to be left out unless a commitment to cover 100% with NGA connectivity is agreed.

The situation has caused some locals, whom attended a recent public meeting, to question why BT was the only bidder involved in the process. BDUK’s current framework effectively excludes smaller ISPs, unless they can demonstrate a substantial turnover, and the separate £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund currently only seems to approve grants for projects that BT are involved in; usually due to overbuilding fears and controversial data confidentiality with regards to coverage and speeds (here).

Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish said:

There is always the argument of ‘is there enough competition? Are we getting value for money?

Meanwhile the Government, through an additional allocation of £250m to the BDUK programme, appears to be pushing for a resolution to the issue and this might involve encouraging a greater acceptance of smaller altnet operators.

Equally nobody would be surprised if most of the local authorities merely ended up awarding the extra funding to BT, which is often seen by councils as a safe bet due to its established network, scale and money pile. But in some areas this might risk overlooking other solutions.

Trefor Davies, former CTO of Business ISP Timico, said separately (here):

If a village thinks it’s going to get broadband and then finds it isn’t this is likely to cause huge consternation amongst residents. Broadband, or the lack of, is a very emotive subject. I understand this and BT’s desire to avoid the negative PR.

However this lack of transparency is giving rise to too many questions. Does BT have a hidden agenda for example? I am not party to such an agenda but in my mind it has got to a point where someone in authority somewhere should take it out of the hands of BT and the Councils and reveal the detail of the plans.

The cry from BT will be that it would be revealing information of value to its competitors [ISPr ED: street level coverage and speed data]. Surely if we the taxpayer are in large part funding this rollout then the whole competition issue should be irrelevant. The framework for the project put in place by BDUK seems to have scared every other network operator away anyway.”

Some Fixed Wireless Access providers that could probably cover Upottery using less than the £500k envisaged by BT, although whether or not locals would be attracted to such a service is another question. In the longer term there’s a risk that councils which reject wider competition might suffer when it comes to filling in the final 1-5%.

At this point we always think that it’s useful for isolated communities to conduct a local survey of demand so that they can pro-actively demonstrate interest in an upgrade, which is what prospective ISPs like to see. But for any alternative upgrade to work then many councils will need to be ready to look outside of BT’s box.

Leave a Comment
12 Responses
  1. Avatar Matthew Williams

    This is always going be a major problem sadly and honestly I think a lot of us see what is going to happen. Either the government is forced by the EU to reach 100% and there by piling a ton of extra tax payers money to BT and doing it the more expensive way. Or we will get around 95-96% done and the last 4% won’t get it. Similar situation to 4G which is promising 98% even with the Mobile infrastructure project.

  2. Avatar Chris Conder

    All the villages have to do is bring in an altnet. As soon as the commitment is made BT will suddenly find they can do your village after all. Then you have a choice, stay loyal to the altnet and get a better service for more of your outliers or go with a second class fttc solution with BT. Either way the village wins.

    • As a small altnet I rather dislike this approach. All my investment in infrastructure has come from one source. Me. We have now been overbuilt in two areas. One by BT commercially, after they said to our MP that there was never going to be a commercial fttc deployment.

      We have now been overbuilt by BDUK in another area too. Fortunately we have not seen a mass exodus to the likes of infinity, but gaining new customers will be much harder.

      The whole process is a mess and if this continues the altnets will be unwilling to invest more, leaving large pockets as notspots. Good luck!

    • Avatar Gadget

      Chris, that could, indeed, be the upside, but lets not forget the downside of Selling Village, Digital Region and the original Sussex wireless rollout where the money either bought service until it had run out such as Sussex and Digital Region, or it was never completed like Selling Village.

    • Avatar gerarda

      Chris You are right that having an altnet seems to be a trigger for BT to roll out in areas otherwise deemed non-commercial. However what they seem to tend to do is just build in the part of the altnet area, enough to make the altnet no longer viable and so causing even more lack of coverage when the altnet folds than before BT came in.

  3. Given BT are ignoring EFRA, NAO and PAC, and BT’s evidence reads no better than a PR statement, then MPs if they feel the need could call on Government to instruct Ofcom to amend BT UNdertakings for the special conditions created by the presence £1.2bn in state aid. Creating the transparency measures is not beyond our system of Government. EFRA, NAO and PAC have lit this contract up like a Christmas tree, a final push by MPs is needed to force the required change. They did it for the 4G coverage obligtaion, they can do it again.

    The current approach is creating conditions where BT are writing a further ransom note for each excluded village, while there is insufficient information to know why these villages are excluded in the first place.

    Alt nets are fine but they were insufficient showing up to a make a meaningful difference.

  4. Avatar MikeW

    That final 5% is going to be tough.

    According to the ONS, 95% of England’s population lives in a “built-up area”, while it is around 90% in Wales; Scotland have their own system of statistics.

    The ONS definition of this “built-up area” revolves around breaking land down into 200m x 200m grid squares, and analysing use. IIRC, the smallest built-up area must consist of 4 or 5 of these squares that are “predominantly urban in nature”.

    Once the country is fully analysed this way, the smallest “built-up area” comes out to having a population of 100, so presumably is made up of around 40 houses.

    So the final 5%, population-wise, lives pretty much in either solitary houses, or in clusters of no more than 40 properties or so.

  5. Avatar Bodincus

    Just a wee note of order here: these rural locations, hamlets, villages and remote dwellings are probably not served by mains gas, not all of them are connected to the power grid or the water supply.

    These people have chosen to live in a secluded, remote, sometimes wild location, heat themselves burning either wood or oil taken there with a tanker, drink water pumped out of a well, get power when the wind blows or the stream runs, are prepared to drive miles of farm roads to get a pint of milk, but they demand broadband to come at their doorstep?

    On what planet am I landed? Because this is schizophrenic. You can’t choose a lifestyle that means you live in a treehouse in the woods, and then demand for all of us to fund the deployment of high speed broadband to your little bubble.

    We’ll come to the point where it’ll be less expensive to take your bum from the comfy bale of straw you sit on and rebuild a home where broadband is already available.

    I’m not vouching for a mass exodus from rural locations – although this is already happening by the backdoor of young generations leaving the not-spots – but if you want to get away from it all, you can’t cherry-pick what you get, or expect us to pay for your commodities.

    • Avatar Gerarda

      Complete nonsense – to be “isolated” from FTTC you simply have to be more than a mile from a cabinet.

    • Avatar JNeuhoff

      @Gerada: Agreed. Most towns with less than 10 000 are not commerically viable for VDSL, let alone FTTP services. Incompetent telecom companies don’t make things better either. Having nextgen broadband by and large is a matter of a postcode lottery.

    • Avatar AngryNorman

      I live 1 mile from the exchange and my entire area was excluded from the fibre rollout when bt were upgrading the exchange, there are over 200 houses in this area and at one point a few years ago we had 500kbps which was ridiculous, paying the same as everyone else and being provided with a very limited service, so the area with the lowest speeds gets neglected while people who are already on a good connection get further upgraded. Thanks BT. You dont have to live out in the country to be denied FTTC, as long as you live in a complete dump with 4 council houses crammed into a 10 metre diameter you can almost guarantee you will get it….live in a nice area…better keep praying.

      There are countries like Australia who have rural properties hundreds of miles away from the closest town and they get really good speeds using satellite broadband..and this was years ago which just shows that this country is a complete disgrace when it comes to internet technology, everyone sitting with fibre doesnt see it but if they move house the chances are wherever they move to could be without fibre and then they will actually realise how far behind this sh!thole country is compared to other countries. I thought they said 98% of britain by 2014 several years ago….look what year it is and where are they? still sitting with their thumb up their ar5e. BT are useless, enough said.

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