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DEFRA Committee Launch Fresh Inquiry into UK Rural Broadband Provision

Saturday, November 1st, 2014 (7:47 am) - Score 1,582

A Commons Select Committee for the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has launched a new inquiry that will examine the current broadband coverage in rural areas. It will also look at the “Assisted Digital” (i.e. Digital by Default) support being offered to isolated communities and farmers who struggle to get online.

Presently the coalition Government’s national Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme is aiming to make fixed line superfast broadband (24Mbps+) Internet download speeds available to 95% of the population by 2017 (rising to 99% by 2018 when you include mobile/wireless services), with 100% being promised a minimum speed of at least 2Mbps.

However, despite making reasonable progress towards its targets, the £1.7bn (public funding used so far) project has often been criticised for tending to focus on connecting up urban and sub-urban areas first (inside-out approach), which means those with the poorest broadband connectivity in remote rural locations (i.e. the last 5-10%) are often, with a few exceptions, the last to benefit.

Meanwhile some councils have struggled to afford the needed match-funding in order to achieve the latest 95% goal, while BDUK’s strict framework has tended to mean that the only viable telecoms operator able to bid and win the relevant contracts is BT (everybody else dropped out long ago). A lack of support for smaller alternative network (altnet) providers, usually by failing to ensure good transparency of coverage, speed and cost data in the relevant contracts, certainly hasn’t helped.

Adding insult to injury, the Government’s Digital by Default policy often appears to be forcing those in isolated rural areas, such as farmers, to go online in order to complete certain tax submissions and other tasks.

The Rural Broadband and Digital-Only Services Inquiry

This inquiry will examine the current broadband coverage in rural areas and the new digital─only services. It will also look at the “Assisted Digital” support being offered.
The Committee invites written evidence on the following issues:

1. The extent of broadband coverage in hardest to reach rural areas
2. Digital access and experience of digital─only programmes, such as the new CAP system applications
3. Support available for those required to use digital─only programmes

Mind you there has been no shortage of similar inquiries and related reports over the past few years (e.g. here, here and here), although some of these have ended up making unrealistic proposals or falling into the usual bracket of overinflated politically motivated criticism. The proximity to next year’s General Election is likely to further magnify such language.

Sadly this ignores the fact that there are still plenty of problem areas with the BDUK approach, which could easily be resolved if heads were cracked together through the application of common sense. But in the end the Government has rarely adjusted their approach, at least not in any significant way, and we suspect that this inquiry won’t be any different.

The closing date for Written Submissions is Wednesday 19th November 2014, which means we’re unlikely to see the outcome until early 2015.

Leave a Comment
50 Responses
  1. Avatar James Harrison

    This would be the same DEFRA that actively fought against Rural Community Broadband Fund projects? (Which is part of why the RCBF has funded so few properties – ignoring the ones which were simply BDUK handing more money to itself)

  2. Avatar Patrick Cosgrove

    I fear you are right that it will make little difference, but one can but try. Of course a wide open election is an opportunity to be exploited by those campaigning for a reversal of priorities. Where rural votes are up for grabs and local authorities have not yet defaulted to BT for Phase 2 roll-out, there is still time to consider alternative approaches.

    • Avatar DTMark

      I’m not convinced that alternate approaches could be considered at this stage; I would have thought that a comprehensive strategy “street by street” was pivotal to start with to best determine the technologies and approach.

      Otherwise, what would be very tempting, is to end up with a structure where the provider with whom almost all the money would be spent is nominated at the start based on ‘aims’, with that player acting as a ‘partner’ as opposed to ‘provider’ with a certain say in the deployments, which either deliberately or inadvertently ends up with gaps in coverage.

      With such gaps only really being able to be filled by building a second overlapping network in the same areas.

      Which probably isn’t going to be affordable.

      Leading to perhaps a “massaging” of the availability figures to try to make the outcome of an uncertain strategy and budget match the goals, for instance, by asserting that there are just a small handful of people who might need to use satellite. All boxes ticked.

    • @Patrick Documenting subsidised VDSL in Bridgnorth housing estates and contrasting with the case study in Middleton, Leeds illustrates the mis-use of subsidy rather well. However, getting to the point where the inflated milestone payments would be considered illegal state aid would demand 1) MPs to call for a change in BT Undertakings – so where state aid is present BT is obliged to provide full cost transparency and 2) the state aid competency centre function needs to be independent of the contract letting body.
      DEFRA called for more transparency in Novemeber 2012 and was ignored, as was PACx2 and the NAO so unless they conclude and act on 1 and 2 it is difficult to see what they can achieve.

  3. Avatar GNewton

    “failing to ensure good transparency of coverage, speed and cost data in the relevant contracts, certainly hasn’t helped.”

    This is certainly true with Essex county which has refused to publish any meaningful details about coverage and costs of it taxpayer-funded BDUK programme, making the latter a farce.

    Building duplicate, and non-future-proof networks, such as VDSL, has been a collosal waste of resources and money, and hardly done anything to provide meaningful broadband.

    And shutting out alternative network providers by withholding vital information (dubious commercial confidentiality clauses), even when this beggar known as BT has been taxpayer-funded, doesn’t help either with regards to building normal fibre-optic networks.

    • Avatar fastman2

      if i was being mishchevious id be asking essex about their business park take up !!!

    • Avatar FibreFred

      You hate vdsl and Bt , we get that but at least try to provide some substance to your rantings when you start making such sweeping statements.

      If you can’t maybe sign off making it clear these are your personal views only and you have pure hatred for Bt 🙂

  4. Avatar Patrick Cosgrove

    I hoe you’ll all be sending submissions to DEFRA by the 19th November deadline.

  5. Avatar fastman2

    Gnewton can you prove that has been a collosal waste of resources and money, and hardly done anything to provide meaningful broadband – s take an rutal north essex n exchange where village 5 k from that exchange had 1 meg now has 60+ at network level — try telling that village thats not meaingfull (take up un that village will tell you otherwise) — i agree business parks do not make good value for moey for commerial programme and even less for BDUK as they skew the cost per premises for the BDUK and if they are prioritises that can can affect the % coverage for the county to a detrimental effect – which is why few countiesl have deployed business parks

  6. Ah this is going to be a good comment thread.

    Please carry on. Vociferously.

  7. Avatar TomD

    If they’re measuring rural superfast (or even basic) coverage I’d really like to see coverage figures expressed for rural areas, separate from the county-wide averages. Do any counties offer that?

    • Avatar Gadget

      But first you have to agree on and be able to measure what you define as rural. There are some definitions such as Eurostat ones based on population density but then you need to define the area for the density calculation otherwise you rate Hyde Park as rural.

    • Avatar TomD

      Alright – I’d settle for reporting by district. I saw some recent news item saying the Berkshire 95% target meant 85% for West Berkshire, for example. Same with Essex Phase2: 93% for Essex was mapped to 85% for Maldon, and 87% for Braintree and Uttlesford. This pattern happens when a county has rural districts but also significant urban areas.

    • Avatar David Powell

      ‘Connecting Devon & Somerset’ are aiming for 90% coverage for their area for ‘phase 1’ but it will only be 72% in the South Hams District Council area.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      Assuming most (all?) of the BDUK contracts look to maximise coverage within the available budget, it is surely inevitable that the most rural parts of any given area have lower coverage?

      These sames areas are probably less likely to have mains water, sewerage, gas etc, and the cost of provision of fibre broadband would in same cases be prohibitive. I’d be very unhappy if there wasn’t a maximum spend limit per property to ensure that we get value for money for our taxes. Offering, say, subsidised satellite services in such cases would seem to be a reasonable compromise.

    • Avatar TomD

      I agree that rural parts are likely to get less out of the deal than urban because of extra cost.
      What is disturbing is that this spread of coverage is not available; a target described as “95% coverage for urban districts and 88% for rural districts equating to 93% across the county” surely is possible?

  8. Avatar Michael

    FTTP is the only way !.

    • In some cases absolutely. I think I’ll write a blog post up tomorrow on at least one of those cases.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Only way + some cases. Surely the two statements are at odds?

    • Avatar No Clue

      Either way it will be another post for you to go and diarrhea all over. Ill take a book to any interested party in what name you decide to use.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Thanks but I’ve been using this and only this id on here for years I’ve no interest or need to use multiple ids

    • Avatar No Clue

      What happened to the GMAN ID is that for TBB only now. MikeW hasnt been around for a while neither. Or the various Phil incarnations.

    • Not really contradictory. FTTP is the only way to go in some cases. In other cases FTTC or an alternative makes way more sense.

      His was an absolute, mine was conditional.

      Sadly haven’t found the time to write up my post but will get to it at some point in the next day or two.

    • Avatar Raindrops

      Id be interested in you making a blog post Ignitionnet and well explained points based on your other blog entries it would make. Maybe disable comments on it see idiot boy can not fill it with his spam.

    • Avatar FibreFred

      If he disabled comments you’d surely miss out on the chance to brown nose him so much?

    • Avatar No Clue

      Better that than snowballing with BT daily as you do. What no steve ID reply this evening just stuck to Gadget and Fibrederp at 8pm eh?

    • Avatar Raindrops

      Poor lad must finally have something to do with his time on weekdays as he only seems to post between about 7pm and 10pm now with the obligatory 30min gap between mental personas agreeing with itself.

  9. Avatar GNewton

    “What happened to the GMAN ID is that for TBB only now.”

    Actually, to be fair, why should he use the same id on ThinkBroadband? It’s a different forum. He normally posts there under the GMAN99 id in case you want to know.

    Of course if a poster frequently accuses others of being BT haters then this exhibits troll-like attitudes.

    We have a lot of evidence, last not least as a result of different requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and engaging with the local district council, to verify that for a lot of Essex areas way too much taxpayer money was wasted on non-futureproof technologies, and how other potential alternative network builders were shut out. The Essex BDUK project is still withholding vital information under the disguise of commercial confidentiality clauses, and there was no evidence that this council did anything to prevent its only provider (BT) to jeopardise affordable upgrade paths to fibre broadband services (anybody remember the Fibre-on-demand farce?).

    • Avatar FibreFred

      Post up the info you have then

      As for wasted money how are you defining it is a waste ? Surely that is a personal view unless you are saying the la has conducted their own survey and found it was a waste ?

      Everyone knows fttc is not future proof , doesn’t mean it’s a waste , buy a new laptop now it’s not future proof should you not bother as its a waste of money ?

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      Care to share your evidence of alternative providers being shut out? I note the separate post from DragonEast seems to contradict your assertion, is he/she wrong?

      Not entirely sure what your sentence “Essex County Council did anything to prevent its only provider (BT) to jeopardise [sic] affordable upgrade paths…” Means? Why would Essex County Council need to show “evidence” of preventing this to you, and in any case surely the county BDUK programme does this anyway? Since you then refer to fibre on demand, was there any commitment by the county to provide this through its contract? If so, who to and when?

      [To avoid wasted energy later, I do classify FTTC as fibre broadband, alongside a variety of other FTTx variants, suspect many of those people who don’t are the same people that could not grasp the meaning of “up to” either. :p ]

    • Avatar GNewton

      “Since you then refer to fibre on demand, was there any commitment by the county to provide this through its contract? If so, who to and when? ”

      No, there wasn’t any commitment to do fibre broadband (the Essex BDUK website is quite misleading on this!). However, one of the conditions to be met by its BDUK project in order to use public funds, according to what we were told by them, was to provide affordable future-proof upgrade paths from VDSL to fibre. Of course the county can tell you anything, but if they don’t officially publish the original contract details with BT, it is easy for any of the contract parties to do adhoc changes. There are no real independent public audits with detailed transparency of the costs available.

    • Avatar Raindrops

      “What happened to the GMAN ID is that for TBB only now.”

      Actually, to be fair, why should he use the same id on ThinkBroadband? It’s a different forum. He normally posts there under the GMAN99 id in case you want to know.

      An example of why the idiot thinks everyone who calls him out on his complete vomit is Deduction and has done for years.


    • Avatar No Clue

      Ah the good old days when he only had 2-3 names rather than a near dozen.

  10. Avatar GNewton

    Just a quick note: I don’t answer to trolls who have nothing better to do than accusing others of being BT haters for simply posting a different opinion.

    For anyone else, Freedom of Information enquiries and the Essex county’s responses are all available at http://www.essex.gov.uk/Your-Council/Your-Right-Know/Pages/Freedom-of-Information-search2.aspx

    Everyone can send their own enquiries to YourRight.ToKnow@essex.gov.uk (as regards Essex county, other counties will have similar arrangements)

    • Avatar FibreFred

      You are a Bt hater simple as .

      That aside I assume you cannot answer the last question and just conviently state you don’t respond to trolls , I suppose that us one way of ducking the issue , I doubt it will make your posts anymore credible sadly

    • Avatar dragoneast

      Just as an example: Essex Councils (including but not limited to ECC) have grant aided both Fibre Wi-Fi and County Broadband for Fixed Wireless services to (mostly) rural areas for both businesses and residents, specifically in Maldon, Uttlesford and Epping Forest (three of the most-rural Districts) for FW; and CB operate in Braintree District, have grant aid in Colchester and also I believe serve parts of Tendring. BT can be critised; but as a Fixed Wireless user for several years I know that the ignorance and laziness of consumers plays its part too. Perhaps private individuals have their excuses (though I’m one of them); businesses have, I think, less excuse. Sometimes, you have to help yourself.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      An interesting and helpful example. It would be helpful to understand whether the county and district councils involved have ever run any procurement exercises prior to awarding this money, as otherwise it could amount to illegal state aid.

    • Avatar fastman2

      dragoneast nbo procurement what so ever — also said couty prioritised certain areas as well

  11. Avatar GNewton

    @dragoneast: Your example illustrates how weird the Essex projects are, because many of the areas covered by these alternative providers overlap with the BDUK areas.

    Also, if you look at what has happened to some areas in Witham or Colchester with the BDUK wastefulness, it makes you wonder whether there are any cost control mechanisms at all.

    As I said, the biggest failure is the lack of published information, up to this day there are e.g. no published costs per cabinet with detailed breakdowns. Spending up to £2400 per VDSL line is certainly a waste of taxpayer’s money. For example, this is how Essex county council dodges the question:

    “ECC does not have access to a full list of telecoms cabinets, so therefore cannot provide this. With regard to BT cabinets, Essex County Council does hold this information but BT has classed this information as commercially sensitive and ensured Essex County Council signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement.”

    or this:

    “We consider that the disclosure of full residential postcodes linked to the BDUK project may prejudice the commercial interests of Essex County Council and the providers commissioned to provide services on behalf of Essex County Council.”

    I also have to agree that all too many users are simply not aware of alternative providers, or are simply not willing to do their own quick research. Perhaps it’s also a lack of marketing or advertising?

    • Avatar TheFacts

      Are you seriously expecting every BDUK project to issue details of each element of providing every cabinet plus the core network, including costs from every contractor?

    • Avatar GNewton

      Only as a result when requested under Freedom of Information Act, especially when there is a public concern that quite a lot of taxpayer’s money is wasted in certain areas. There is certainly a lack of transparency as regards where all the money has gone in quite a few cases.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      Has this level of detail ever been published for any other council or government contract?

    • Avatar GNewton

      @TheFacts: I have repeatedly pointed it out to you how you can do your own research and share the results with us, rather than constantly asking your stupid questions.

      Have you done your research yet as regards the questions raised some months ago?

    • Avatar TheFacts

      Why is asking if this level of detail has been published stupid? Somebody may be able to help by answering.

    • Avatar GNewton

      @TheFacts: It becomes stupid because it was explained to you several times in the past how to do your own research and get needed answers. You have yet to post anything constructive on this forum.

    • Avatar Abuse Alert

      It is immature and unhelpful to describe either a poster or their comments as ‘stupid’.

      Please refrain for the benefit of all who view this site.

    • Avatar Raindrops

      “Please refrain for the benefit of all who view this site.”

      I doubt many bothered to read through your schizoid multi posts.

  12. Avatar fastman2

    there are two ways around coverage — do as much as you can for the money (no proritisation) or Prioritise (do those first regardless of cost then do what you can with the rest) —

  13. Avatar fastman2

    PS thats an LA decision not an operators !!!!

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