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Key Points from BT’s Oral Evidence to the UK Rural Broadband Inquiry

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 (4:48 pm) - Score 981

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has just held an Oral Evidence session for their on-going inquiry into UK rural broadband coverage and digital-only services. First in the hot seat was the familiar face of Sean Williams, BT’s Group Director of Strategy, Policy & Portfolio, whom had a few interesting points to make on the matter.

The BDUK project currently aims to make fixed line “super-fast” Internet download speeds (24Mbps+) available to 90% by around early 2016 and rising to 95% of the population by 2017 (note: this is expected to reach 99% by 2018 when you include mobile/wireless services), while 100% are being promised a minimum speed of at least 2Mbps (USC) by sometime in 2016.

At this point we’re just going to assume that most of our readers already know about the national Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme and skip ahead to give a simple summary of Mr Williams most interesting insights and claims. But in case you’re less familiar then it’s worth taking a look at our brief summary of the inquiry’s Written Evidence (here), which we posted yesterday.

BTs Oral Evidence Highlights

* BT said that 97% of premises can currently get speeds of at least 2Mbps, although they anticipated that this would eventually reach 98.5% and anybody in the final 1.5% were effectively then told to get a Satellite broadband connection instead of a fixed line service.

Williams made the point that a basic Satellite service was “not drastically expensive” and highlighted how the European Commission had already used it to tick their universal coverage box (here). Sadly this rather overlooks the cost of hardware / installation, issues with planning permission in some areas, high latency, heavy traffic throttling (on some platforms) and lack of flexible end-user capacity / usage allowances.

* BT warned that there was a possibility that the 2017 target for 95% superfast broadband coverage might still end up slipping into 2018. Likewise they also warned that it could be the end of 2016, as opposed to early 2016, before the first 90% target is achieved. But despite this Williams was upbeat and said that he still felt as though the Government’s current “targets are realistic“, while earlier he had joked about the target saying “we’ll get there in the end“.

Williams also confirmed that no target date has yet been set for achieving 100% superfast coverage, which in any case is perhaps more a matter for BDUK to announce.

* BT admitted that aluminium lines weren’t “fit for purpose for our current needs” and said they “quite often” have to put in a new copper and VDSL (FTTC) street cabinets (Copper Rearrangement) in order to solve this and deliver superfast broadband. But Williams also warned that this could be a very expensive process (they don’t use it everywhere). Thankfully BT doesn’t have that many aluminium lines, but there are still quite a few about.

* BT said the BDUK scheme was currently rolling out to 60,000 premises per week, although they warned that the work “becomes increasingly difficult as you go alone” (i.e. connecting more remote rural areas).

* On the heated question of whether BT should be rolling out pure fibre optic Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) to every home instead of slow hybrid-fibre FTTC solutions, BT said FTTP would “cost five times as much and take five times as long” to reach every premises (it’s unclear if this was a reference to the FTTC cost under BDUK or when combined with their existing commercial investment). Williams also said that he saw “no case” in the future to have FTTP everywhere, adding “we don’t think FTTP is the answer“.

* BT added that FTTC / VDSL lines were good enough and “delivering 80Mbps“, albeit clearly forgetting to add the ‘up to’ prefix. In fairness, Williams did spend a lot of time on explaining how FTTC speed degrades over distance, due to the limits of copper line technology.

* BT also talked up their tentative plans to roll-out Vectoring for FTTC lines and future G.fast (aka – FTTC2) technology, both of which appear to look more and more certain given the anti-FTTP comments made earlier.

* Questions were also put concerning BT’s dominance of the BDUK contracts and its potential monopoly position. Williams responded to say that there were 9 bidders at the opening of the process, although only 2 qualified and all except BT eventually dropped out. BT claimed to have the best and cheapest solution, on top of which they were willing to put in “hundreds of millions of pounds“.

Given the Christmas break, we don’t anticipate a conclusion to this inquiry being published until sometime during early 2015, which may or may not have a tangible impact on a future third round of funding to reach 100% superfast coverage (we wouldn’t bank on it).

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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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