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Did Labour Just Complain the UK Gov’s Broadband Speeds are Too Fast?

Thursday, October 30th, 2014 (4:11 pm) - Score 1,113
westminster uk government

Politicians, love them or hate them, they’ll often turn even a sane person barmy and that certainly seems to be the direction that some people may take when they listen back to a few of the comments that were spoken at today’s 2014 Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR) in Portcullis House.

Admittedly there are plenty of criticisms that could be thrown at the coalition Government’s national Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme, such as the restrictions of their framework design that resulted in BT being left as the only viable bidder, a lack of support for FTTH/P connectivity and the general shunning of smaller alternative network (altnet) providers by failing to ensure good transparency over coverage, speed and cost commitments in the relevant contracts. We can think of a few more too, but any approach will always have its weak areas.

However, with a General Election just around the corner, it’s not surprising to find political rivals starting to throw criticisms around (i.e. more than usual) and there was certainly no shortage of that during today’s conference. Indeed some of the most scathing came from Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman.

Harman took aim at the Government’s Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, whom she accused of being “complacent” over the progress of the BDUK deployment, which currently works predominantly with BT and aims to make fixed line “superfast broadband” speeds of greater than 24Mbps (Megabits per second) available to 95% of the population by 2017.

In particular, Harman suggested that Vaizey was focusing too much on rolling out superfast speeds and not enough to ensure that everybody could get a basic 2Mbps connection first.

Harriet Harman, UK Labour’s Deputy Leader, said:

But I don’t feel that this Government has got the right level of ambition in relation to their role and the contribution government needs to make in driving forward connectivity. And two key issues right now are completing connectivity and ensuring digital inclusion.

By the time we left Government 74 percent of people had 5.2 MBPS and we were working towards our target of basic broadband for every household and every business by 2012. This target, which was regarded as realistic and achievable, would have meant that by now every household and business would have broadband access with decent speed.

But, when they came in, in 2010, the new Government scrapped the 2012 target, promising instead to roll out superfast broadband to 90% of the population by 2015. But that is not going to happen. Having scrapped our target of 2012, they’ve had to move their own target back from 2015 to 2017. Currently only 75% have superfast broadband.

So, though they’ve ploughed in £1.2 billion in public money, a quarter of the population still don’t have superfast broadband and many will have to wait till – or beyond – 2017. We estimate them missing their own target has lost the UK economy £7bn of foregone GDP. And it’s particularly a problem in rural areas.

The point is that government ought to be not just alongside but ahead of people, not dragging behind them. And there are massive complaints about this. With vociferous complaints to MPs – including on the Government’s side.”

It’s disappointing that Harman didn’t use the opportunity to attack some of BDUK’s actual failings, perhaps by also stating their own ambition for the future (we still don’t know what Labour’s official broadband policy post-2015 is and the recent activist report created more questions than answers), and instead focused on a comparison of old policy. It doesn’t help that she also got her “MBPS” (MegaBytes per second?) confused with Mbps (Megabits).

Firstly, on the original “basic broadband” commitment (i.e. 2Mbps for all by 2012), it’s important to remember that this was Labour’s policy agreed prior to the 2010 general election and one that had not yet formed a concrete plan for implementation. In other words, it’s unlikely that work could have started on its implementation until late 2010 or early 2011 (i.e. the usual administrative delays, consultations etc.) and quite how you’d then deliver 2Mbps using fixed lines to everybody in the remaining space of time we do not know (note: Satellite could already delivery this, but it’s an inferior technology for reasons of cost, capacity and flexibility).

On top of that if you’re going to spend millions upgrading old infrastructure in remote rural areas then surely it makes more economic sense to take a little longer and spend ever so slightly more in order to deliver “superfast broadband” speeds (24Mbps+), which is the approach taken by the post-2010 coalition government. This also avoids wasting money through duplication of the investment at a later date, although eventually even today’s hybrid-fibre services may need another upgrade, so there’s a separate debate to be had around that.

It’s also easy to forget that BT’s approach, while admittedly still delivering a slower and less reliable hybrid-fibre (FTTC) solution, is still being rolled out at an impressively fast pace given the complex reality of telecoms infrastructure work. Granted it would have been nice to see this benefitting remote rural areas first (sadly most of those are being left until last), but we can at least understand the network topology and cost reasons for building inside-out instead of outside-in.

Harman also re-played the old criticism of BDUK by saying that their own target of 2015 had been delayed, although this is rather unfair as it ignores how this reflects the lifted coverage target from 90% by the end of 2015 to 95% by the end of 2017. The last 5-10% is always slower to reach because in rural areas you end up spending more money in order to cater for fewer people.

Furthermore, recent predictions from Point Topic and BDUK suggest that the Government still stands a strong chance of hitting their first 90% target in 2015 and at worst it might slip by 1-2%, which given the complexity of this rollout is still pretty good for any Government project.

Finally, Harman suggests that the Government’s policy “has lost the UK economy £7bn of foregone GDP“, although precisely how that value was reached we do not know. Even the best economists warn that trying to quantify the economic impact of broadband, especially when it’s reduced down to the difference between particular service speeds, is fraught with difficulty.

On the other hand Harman also made some perfectly legitimate criticism of the Government’s Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP), which over the past two years has been scaled back from its original ambition and may still leave mobile notspots in its wake. The limited success of the business focused Connection Voucher scheme also took a few hits, although the latter was admittedly constrained more by EU competition rules than local policy.

In any case our view is that Harman would have been more effective had she highlighted the practical present-day problems with BDUK and built her attack by showing what Labour would do differently post-2015, as opposed to using an unimplemented and unfinished policy from pre-2010, which incidentally seemed unlikely to ever meet its own 2012 target, as a basis for the criticism.

Hopefully next year we’ll get to see a firm policy position for broadband from all of the major parties.

Leave a Comment
17 Responses
  1. Avatar DTMark

    “we were working towards our target of basic broadband for every household and every business by 2012. This target, which was regarded as realistic and achievable”

    Since you never did define how it would be achieved, using what tech and at what cost..

    1. You necessarily cannot assert that without any costing or planning, it would have been realistic or achievable.

    2. If we include satellite provision, then this target was already met even before BDUK. BDUK was never about any kind of basic USC, the goals were changed early on in the project to match only what would work with a phone network. USCs don’t work with variable rate DSL over phone networks. So, no USC.

    3. By mandating only one supplier, you lost any negotiating ability whatsoever. No business would *ever* work like that.

    4. Netherlands, UPC, 55 EUR a month for 200 down and 20 up. Do tell us how soon we can expect that widespread connectivity here. Oh, and by the way, net neutrality enshrined in legislation over there, and..

    “According to research done by the (OECD) the NL is ranked with Switzerland in having the most broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants,[1] has no bandwidth caps,[2] and has the most homes passed in Europe in terms of connection speeds of 50 Mbit/s and higher.[3]”

    They can do it. We can’t. Apparently. To quote a line from a well known film..

    “We’re British. We’re not going to do anything. Until it’s too late.”

    • 2) USC, Correct but that did not stop most councils paying a premium for USC (something for everyone) and paying for it in inflated milestone payments while BT is not deploying solutions, pretty much for the reasons you have given. Each county is down £2-3m each for what counts as a USC premium, which can be met with an unsubsidised satellite referral deal.

    • Avatar gerarda

      2)incorrect – there has never been enough satellite capacity to do this

    • Gerarda – sorry correct in the sense your thinking but it would be easy to accept responsibility and wait for the call and then find a fix, rather than trying to find a fix. Nobody would be dumb enough to deploy BET although that was inlcuded in the £15k isk subsidies for NI. Satellite guys have enough for at 4% given the transponders available – statistically active users etc.

    • Avatar James Harrison

      Except satellite broadband is not usable for most real time applications due to latency constraints. Try Skype or VoIP (crucial for most business usage) or things like collaborative document editing with a quarter second of latency! It’s no use for many people as a result, aggregate transponder capacity aside.

    • @James Latency of c800ms is not removable but packet loss and jitter is well managed. Prec-caching content, Pep’s, Ka band and 20Mbps sat modems allow MOSS scores on Voip hit 4 which works but satellite service is defined in its SLA, which does not hide from the parameters in which it needs to work. The engineers keep peak hour loading rules to themselves but a bit more volume will force transparency on those rules.
      The DCMS startegy doc 2010 said satellite needed for last 1%. This will remain case for isolated homesteads I should imagine.

      The comment here is that USC could be met this way, without BT spending the USC premiums collected, not that it should be met this way.

    • Avatar gerarda

      Even if there was capacity, which you have already admitted there is not, the satellite installation and possibly some of the monthly rental would have to be subsidised to meet the affordable criteria of the state aid guidelines

  2. Avatar Gadget

    NGA – appreciate you have the bit between your teeth on milestone payments but if these have to be a)related to the cost of provision and b)auditable then surely any unjustified claims will be quickly knocked back.
    As for USC premium does that cover payments for the removal of DACs?

    • @Gadget -I was expecting that, why have we not seen any in Rutland, North Yorks? It is not just clawback- which is clawback of the take up risk premium over life of project, it is very large contingencies built into the milestone payments.

      USC – It looked like a way of sucking up money. North Yorks reports makes reference to BT surrendering £2-3m as part of Phase 2 extension. Suffolk looks to be paying USC and then SEP monies from their reporting to council such as it is.

      There are three areas reporting BT reducing its commercial footprint and pushing for state aid. I assume this pactice will expand now BT Group have rehearsed the practice.

    • @Gadget Sorry, It is about a £500m bee in my bonnet, and it is £500m at the expense of the rural economy. It is also at the expense of a more efficient Openreach, in terms of opportunity for cost transformation. I am sure it will not miss BT Group strategists attention that those planning infrastucture and regulation longterm no longer discuss if BT should be split, but when and how, but this does not help the rural economy today.

    • Avatar GNewton

      @NGA for all:

      “that those planning infrastucture and regulation longterm no longer discuss if BT should be split, but when and how,”

      Interesting. Any sources for this information? It would be highly useful to split up BT once and for all, should have been done years ago.

  3. Avatar New_Londoner

    @Mark
    Having a target for something to be delivered in 2012 is one thing, working out a delivery plan is quite another. And of course it would need state aid approval, so would have had to go through the same process that delayed the start of the BDUK project. It would be interesting to understand why it would have been approved any quicker.

    In other words, the 2012 plan fails to pass even the most basic common sense test.

    • Avatar gerarda

      2012 may have been aim not a plan but 5 years later there is still no plan to get even the the now outdated USC thanks to the dead hand of BT and the supine EU

  4. Harperson is obsessed with the thought that absolutely everyone should be equal in every way, hence ramming her Equality Act through parliament during the wash up phase pre-election.

    Well, apart from those who she considers deserve to be more equal than others.

  5. Avatar timeless

    l can see the whole “basic” access aspect, however imho if one is going to do a job they need to do it properly.. rather than ensuring basic speed over basic networks l believe it would be better to future proof areas of need while one is trying to ensure access.

  6. Avatar No Clue

    “It doesn’t help that she also got her “MBPS” (MegaBytes per second?) confused with Mbps (Megabits).”

    Oh please tell me there is a clip of this on iplayer and at least one of them in parliament had the sense to stand up and point out to her just like when she was running “Harriets kitchen” that also had more bits than bytes lol

  7. Avatar tim

    WTF where have them been too fast !!!! snail fast vdsl a piece of junk

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