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UK Government Quietly Removes the “Rural” from its Broadband Scheme

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 (8:39 am) - Score 2,362

A small but interesting change has recently happened to some of the Government’s official Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) documentation, which until recently was frequently and perhaps somewhat misleadingly still being described as the “Rural Broadband Programme“. The same piece of text has since been amended to read “Superfast Broadband Programme“, but we wouldn’t worry.

Anybody who has followed the BDUK scheme from its inception, when the word “rural” was frequently being employed to deliver maximum impact, knows that the projects actual approach has in fact been rather less focused on those lush green rolling hills, existing as they do outside of the urban sphere, than the political rhetoric might suggest.

superfast bduk rural broadband changes

According to the Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), which drew our attention to this small but interesting change, the adjustment in wording has “resulted in misleading and overstating actual coverage in rural areas“. We’re not so sure about that, but it does highlight an interesting area of discussion that often gets overlooked.

The ACRE added, “There are examples where it is stated that 90 – 95 % coverage of Superfast Broadband is for ‘rural areas’ but actually it is for complete county or partnership wide areas.” The reality, which the ACRE has just discovered, won’t be anything new to most observers that have long seen the target as a national one as opposed to being rural specific.

Admittedly the BDUK scheme will help many rural areas to gain access to a faster connection, but its original aim was to make fixed line superfast broadband (24Mbps+) speeds available to “90% of people in each local authority area” by the end of 2015 (note: the completion date for this has tended to vary between March 2015 and the end of 2015) and this was last year pushed to 95% by 2017 or 99% by 2018 when you include mobile/wireless solutions.

But most of what people would actually consider to be truly rural (countryside) exists in that final 5-10%. In other words, the 10-20% coverage gap that BDUK was designed to fill, which exists between how far the commercial sector can push fibre optic based broadband (i.e. around 70%-80% coverage between BT, KC and Virgin Media etc. – depending upon whose statistics you believe) and the extra bit to reach 90% through BDUK, mostly appears to consist of sub-urban areas, larger towns and big villages. It’s only when we get beyond 2015 that the work to go from 90% to 95% or more will really need to focus much more strictly on rural areas.

On top of that there’s also a very persuasive argument that the first coverage figure of 90% could have been reached without any recourse to public funding, although consumers would probably have had to wait considerably longer for that to happen through commercial investment; as has often been the case in the past (e.g. just look at how long it took BT to finally push ADSL2+ services out to over 90% of the UK).

Separately the official BDUK page has also now been changed to highlights the projects various goals, which is frankly a long overdue adjustment. But there are also a few interesting word choices to highlight here too; the relevant bits have been pasted below.

BDUK’s New Programme Summary (Nov 2014)

The Government is investing over £1 billion in improving broadband and mobile infrastructure to:

• Provide superfast broadband coverage to 90% of the UK by 2016
• Provide basic broadband (2Mbps) for all by 2016
• Provide superfast broadband to 95% of the UK by 2017
• Explore options to get near universal superfast broadband coverage across the UK by 2018
• Create 22 ‘SuperConnected Cities’ across the UK by 2015
• Improve mobile coverage in remote areas by 2016

BDUK has three programmes to achieve this:

Superfast Broadband Programme

The ambition is to provide superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps or more) for at least 95% of UK premises and universal access to basic broadband (speeds of at least 2Mbps).

A couple of things to note about the new text, firstly the 2Mbps Universal Service Commitment (USC) now has a centralised completion goal of “by 2016”, which as expected puts it broadly in line with the original “superfast” coverage target of 90% that is anticipated to be achieved by early 2016 (although they’ve also played it safe again above by describing the “superfast” target as “by 2016”). Over the years it’s not always been clear when the USC would be met or even if it was being taken seriously (we’re still not confident of that last part).

Secondly, the superfast coverage goal is now expressed as an “ambition“, which in fairness is probably the correct terminology to be using as opposed to expressing concrete targets for something as complex as telecoms and Internet delivery. Make of all this what you will.

Leave a Comment
26 Responses
  1. Avatar Chris Conder says:

    Its all a superfarce, and history via all these blogs will mark the spot when all the civil servants and politicians got conned by telcos protecting their obsolete assets. That funding and support was for the rural areas, and they let it slip through their fingers because they got conned. Simple. Its all gone into making a few go a bit faster if they live near a cabinet, instead of pushing out the frontiers and creating competition. They were stitched up by marketing hype. TheThickofIt.

    1. Avatar TheFacts says:

      How about, just for once, you explain the actual numbers that consist of the ‘few’. Do you support the spending of ~£25B for a full UK FTTP rollout?

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      The funding and the political priorities were never for the rural, but for the maximum number of potential connections over 24mbps by a particular date.

      Bidders respond to the requirements. What has emerged is the logical consequence. Politicians are responsible for policies, and some half-baked conspiracy theory that you have that relieves them of the consequences of their own decisions is ridiculous.

    3. Avatar GNewton says:

      @TheFacts: “Do you support the spending of ~£25B for a full UK FTTP rollout?”

      Where did you get that figure from? Real world experience from countries like Spain (Telefonica and Jazztel fibre-optic broadband rollout) shows FTTP rollout to be much lower than often assumed by people in the UK.

      This looks more to me like a typical ‘Can’t do’ attitude so prevalent in the UK.

    4. Avatar GNewton says:

      Correction:

      “shows FTTP rollout to be much lower than often assumed by people in the UK.”

      should be:

      “shows FTTP rollout costs to be much lower than often assumed by people in the UK.”

    5. Avatar X66yh says:

      and politicians respond to numbers of votes:

      So given a choice of providing SFBB to a few farms and an hamlet of 20 houses at a cost of a few £000,000 rather than spending the same on a suburban village of 500+ residences it’s fairly obvious that the said farm/hamlet was going to be left out.

      It is a simple pragmatic case of getting the best possible BB speed upgrade to the most people in the quickest time for the least overall cost.

    6. Avatar Bill says:

      oh how times change…

      the 2Mbps Universal Service Commitment (USC) now has a centralised completion goal of “by 2016″

      The same goal that had a target of 2012 as most of us will remember 🙂

      They want super fast on one hand but want it to be only Openreach that provides it. as long as they keep all their eggs in that basket then the “open wallet” will have to remain for some years to come..

    7. Avatar NGA for all says:

      @Steve – BDUK started in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Herefordshire/Gloucestershire and Highlands and Islands which are rural. SA 33671 mades clear rural and not urban in-fill.

      The notion of ‘gap funding’ should allow a lower subsidy for estates leaving more money for more remote patches

      Milestone payments (which includes the premiums for USC ) unrelated to actuals or indeed the notion of a variable gap funding does mean more rural areas are missing out.

    8. Avatar FibreFred says:

      A few?

      You spend what money is available on making as many people as possible get faster speeds, so how many people would have got faster speeds just by rolling out FTTP? How many would be served before the money ran out.

      Very much an “I’m already jack” attitude, give fibre to farms etc and fingers up to everyone else.

      Nice!

    9. Avatar DTMark says:

      Here are the original BDUK project aims:

      BDUK’s goals include facilitating the delivery of universal broadband and stimulating private sector investment to deliver the best super-fast broadband network in Europe by 2015. To achieve these objectives the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have agreed 3 business aims:

      1.Create a level playing field between incumbents and new providers
      2.Open up access to infrastructure to facilitate super-fast broadband in many areas
      3.Facilitate the introduction of super-fast broadband in remote areas at the same time as in more populated areas

      People can judge how well the methodology used has given a result that meets those objectives.

    10. Avatar No Clue says:

      The BDUK is almost as big a fail as BT, its close but BT which can not do anything on time still win.

  2. Avatar Phil Coates says:

    Actually although I am a ‘victim’ of the wording (rural, no BB available at all except Satellite) I am pleased they have finally been honest about the reality of where the money is being spent. Although frustrating at least people are no longer expecting thing to improve and not too disappointed when they don’t. Mind you it would have been better to know this in 2012.

  3. Avatar MikeW says:

    An interesting first couple of posts, with directly opposite views. Were the government passive actors here, who were conned into diverting the BDUK money from the most rural areas, the absolutely hardest-to-reach areas, with farmers like Chris?

    Or were they active in this process, making deliberate choices to target the easiest portion of the electorate first? And then guilty of over-hyping the impact to “rural” UK?

    I have to say it looks more like the second option to me … and has looked like that since the early stages.

    1. Avatar TheFacts says:

      Realistically a build out from centres makes sense from an engineering and financial perspective although remote areas are seeing early activations. In an few years the order of rollout will seem insignificant.

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      What happened is the logical consequence of the political objectives. That is the maximum number of connections > 24mbps within the available budget and by the target date. It’s just necessary to go back to the original objectives to see that.

    3. Avatar gerarda says:

      You will find the original objective as laid out just after the last election was to bring universal coverage.

      This was dropped in favour of a scheme to the benefit of the incumbant.

    4. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      So are you saying that the Government specifically changed the objectives to favour BT, or that BT happened to benefit form the change in objectives? Rather different things.

      nb. some links would be useful. The Conservative manifesto (page 24) has some wording about the economic value of “establishing a super-fast broadband network throughout the UK”, although whether “throughout” means universal coverage is one of those definitional things politicians love to deal in. Note that they said they’d achieve this by forcing BT and other operators to open their infrastructure (which, it is in theory at least, but not many takers to put it mildly – quite probably because they don’t fancy the sort of costs incurred in BDUK; clearing ducts etc.).

      https://www.conservatives.com/~/media/files/activist%20centre/press%20and%20policy/manifestos/manifesto2010

    5. Avatar Phil Coates says:

      Whatever the intentions I am just glad that there is now no chance of misleading the taxpayers everywhere who are part funding the scheme.

      I do feel mislead however about the persistence of my BDUK scheme in insisting that the rollout is 81% rural. The major beneficiaries so far have been Burton, Stoke, Lichfield, Rugeley, Cannock and Stafford where infill from BTs commercial rollout has been completed. I have yet to have a definition of rural from them.

      As I have said before, the Fibre cabinet in Stafford Town Square was recently activated with BDUK funding – surrounded as it is by Banks, Council Offices and Shops. It was, according to BT, not commercially viable.

    6. Avatar gerarda says:

      @steve jones

      This is an extract from Jeremy Hunt’s speech on 8 June 2010
      “And also – an objective I share with Caroline Spelman and her department – government must ensure we do not open up a new digital divide between the urban areas most attractive to infrastructure providers and rural communities where superfast broadband may never be viable.

      So today I am announcing a first series of actions that will lead to the UK having a broadband infrastructure that meets the needs of all its citizens and businesses, and that will stand comparison with anywhere in the world.

      First of all, as mentioned, the government supports the commitment to ensure a universal service level of 2Mbps as the very minimum that should be available. We will use a proportion of the underspend on digital switchover to fund this. ”

      As can be seen by the appalling performance at Parliament today by BT’s spin doctor, BT still have no idea how to achieve this minimum, and so had this been the priority they would not have won a single contract.

    7. Avatar NGA for all says:

      It was a product of agreeing a milestone payment process largely unrelated to the geographies served 1 month before the Olympics.

      There is no evident reconciliation against actuals so there are no contingencies emerging. No e-sets after surveys (apart from Northamptonshire)

      So where you expect an estate might need some contribution to a long spine e.g. <£10k, BT charge c£46k (£94m subsidies reported in q2) on average and wait until challenged. A lengthy wait for invoices provided you ask the right questions, and challenge on evidence of BT's contribution.

      So no conspiracy but a rush to agree soemthing before Olympics when BT's resources were fully engaged until May 2014.

      The latter can be fixed but LA have to demand and check and challenge every invoice.

      No need to rush with SEP as BT has no resource as reported at EFRA today.

  4. Avatar Cathy G says:

    Initially BDUK said there were three funds: the urban BB fund, the Rural BB fund and the Rural Community BB fund – with the last being the one that would deliver at least universal coverage to the final 5-10%. The constantly changing dates and percentages and now names makes it hard to track actual success!

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      The Rural Community Broadband Fund was designed to help areas within the final 10%, but it didn’t set out to achieve universal coverage for all of those and nor could you even get close with only £20m in the kitty.

    2. Avatar Nick says:

      I am a mere amateur in this but the figures I have been given for Community Broadband funding in our area suggest that the effective per-capita funding for community projects is perhaps one third that being given to BT to deliver high speed broadband to more densely populated areas. Yet the technical challenges mean the realistic costs are the inverse of that ratio. Nevertheless, the investment in the suburbs does bring the possibility of backhaul links for rural projects a bit closer.

  5. Avatar NGA for all says:

    There was some talk being officially being met, which suggest the £2-£3m per county premium for USC including satellite could be released back to the counties.

  6. Avatar timeless says:

    now we know where some of the money came from that they have suddenly found for other things… gotta come from somewhere.

  7. Avatar NGA for all says:

    For the record the State Aid measure (SA. 33671) word count for rural is 24 times, 10 relative to the funding schemes, and 14 relating to geography.

    I hope the review of the measure will mean if housing estates have been over funded then, then the re-covered funds can be re-pointed to rural.

    This is not claw-back but the reconciliation of actual costs, minus BT’s initial capital contrubution versus milestones paid.

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