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One to Watch LIVE – Oral Evidence for the UK Rural Broadband Inquiry

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 (9:36 am) - Score 489

The annual Autumn Statement isn’t the only thing on tomorrows Parliamentary agenda because following at 3pm will be a key Oral Evidence hearing for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the broadband coverage of rural areas across the United Kingdom, which is sure to be worth a watch given the guest list.

The Select Committee’s inquiry, which will also look at the “Assisted Digital” (Digital by Default) support being offered to isolated communities and farmers who struggle to get online, was first announced at around the start of November (details).

However the inquiry’s primary focus is to examine the current broadband coverage of rural areas and asses what progress has been made as part of the coalition Government’s national Broadband Delivery UK programme. The BDUK project is aiming to make fixed line “super-fast” Internet download speeds (24Mbps+) available to 95% of the population by 2017 (rising to 99% by 2018 when you include mobile/wireless services), while 100% are also being promised a minimum speed of at least 2Mbps (USC).

One of several issues with the current approach is that much of the opening effort has focused on connecting sub-urban areas, with most of those in remote rural locations being left to wait until the second phase of investment (i.e. the £250m Superfast Extension Programme); this aims to take the national coverage target from 90% by around early 2016 and push it to 95% by the end of 2017.

Crucially most of the UK’s hardest to reach rural areas exist in that final 5-10% and they typically also suffer the longest wait for “super-fast” connectivity (a slow return on the investment, due to smaller populations, is one of the reasons for this). At the same time the Government is pushing more services into an online-only mould (e.g. forcing farmers to complete certain tax submissions online). It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation, although the Government claims to be providing support and if necessary there’s always the stop-gap option of a Satellite connection.

Meanwhile the current economic climate (austerity) has made it difficult for some local authorities to match the government’s funding allocations and others complain that BDUK’s strict framework has meant that the only viable bidder for contracts is BT (everybody else dropped out long ago due to economic and competition concerns). 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 BDUK contracts, also hasn’t helped.

So far the inquiry has already published a list of Written Evidence responses and we’ve linked a few of the more prominent ones in below for your prior reading pleasure / displeasure (delete as applicable).

Rural Broadband Inquiry – Written Evidence

* BT Submission
* Local Government Association
* Government Digital Service – Cabinet Office
* Federation Of Small Businesses
* New Forest National Park Authority
* TalkTalk Submission
* National Farmers’ Union
* Independent Networks Co-Operative Association
* Chief Economic Development Officers Society

Broadly speaking BT’s response largely echoes the perceived successes of the BDUK programme through their involvement, at one point even pointing at that the UK’s basic 2Mbps Universal Service Commitment (i.e. 100% coverage of 2Mbps for more) might arguably already have been achieved through Satellite technology. This mirrors the position taken last year by Europe, which overlooks the many flaws of Satellite connectivity (limited capacity / weak usage allowances, high latency, high cost etc.). “Therefore there is no reason to expect that the availability or lack of availability of broadband services in rural UK will be an issue for the roll out of the CAP programme,” said BT.

Meanwhile TalkTalk simply re-packaged their familiar calls for cheaper FTTC pricing, which they claim is needed in order to help stimulate uptake and tackle BT’s allegedly “artificially inflated wholesale prices“. Ofcom are currently developing a margin squeeze test that may result in a small adjustment of BT’s “fibre broadband” prices, but we won’t know for sure until sometime in 2015 and it probably won’t be a big enough change to completely satisfy TalkTalk.

Others, such as the NFU, also touched on the need for a better minimum speed than 2Mbps. Granted you can do all of the basics with 2Mbps and even some reasonable video streaming, although 4K content won’t work and busy family homes will struggle to make full use of the modern Internet (e.g. simultaneous IPTV streams and downloads etc.) unless a faster minimum is adopted; especially businesses.

Otherwise those wishing to tune in to watch tomorrow’s Oral Evidence session can do so by clicking this link at 3pm:


Oral Evidence Witnesses

At 3pm
* Mr Sean Williams, Group Director, Strategy, Policy & Portfolio, BT

At 3.30pm
* Henry Robinson, President, Country Landowners Association
* Dr Charles Trotman, Senior Business & Economics Advisor, Country Landowners Association

At 4pm
* Mark Grimshaw, Chief Executive, Rural Payments Agency

At 4.30pm
* Jonathan Owen, Chief Executive, National Association of Local Councils

However there have 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 politically motivated criticism, which can be counter-productive as it often overlooks some of the very real issues that do exist (many could probably be resolved through the application of common sense). The proximity to next year’s General Election may magnify such language.

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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.
Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. Andy says:

    “you can do all of the basics with 2Mbps and even some reasonable video streaming”

    Basic is the operative word.. and video streaming at this speed is anything but reasonable!

  2. gerarda says:

    Its a pity that the regulator has not been invited to the session particularly as BT quote some of Ofcom’s nonsense statistics (eg only 3% sub 2mb lines)in defence of their do the better bits first approach to the BDUK rollout

  3. gerarda says:

    In fact the BT submission is a masterpiece of spin with some nice ploys like quoting the EUs 100% available using satellite in the middle of a section about the minimum 2mb requirement but making no reference to the EUs definition of broadband being a minumum of 144kb.

  4. Phil Coates says:

    It would be nice for all concerned to have an agreed definition of ‘rural’. The one provided by my local BDUK project seems to be ‘the 5% of properties we cannot reach with phase 1 funding’,which seems a bit of an oxymoron. This is at the same time as insisting that their delivery in phase 1 will be 81% rural. In reality its a mixture of urban and sub-urban as the piece above suggests.

  5. DTMark says:

    From what I read, satellite is not a 2 Meg option in terms of the performance it often delivers. Between about nil and 0.5 Meg seems normal for peak hours, like for example after 6pm, and the operators don’t seem to have a terribly good reputation for living up to their promises.

    Intriguingly, from what we saw in another LA’s update, BT was committed to deliver the 2Meg to everyone. Though not necessarily via fixed line. Are we really going to see something along the lines of the government paying BT to deliver, BT reselling a satellite service, and pocketing the profit difference while basically doing nothing?

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