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DEFRA UK Report Calls for 10Mbps Universal Broadband Commitment

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 (9:30 am) - Score 734

The Commons Select Committee for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has today published the results of their inquiry into the roll-out of faster broadband Internet access to rural areas, which among other things calls for the current Universal Service Commitment (USC) speed of at least 2Mbps (Megabits) to be increased to 10Mbps.

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

Most of this deployment is being conducted alongside BT and the use of their ‘up to’ 80Mbps capable Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) technology, which the committee said was “an efficient, cost-effective method of improving broadband in areas where premises are located close to their local street cabinet“.

But the committee also warned that FTTC can leave those who already live a long distance from their local street cabinet to suffer slow speeds, which relates to the common problem with longer runs of copper cable becoming increasing susceptible to interference over distance, and called for more alternatives to be considered. It should be said that BT are already examining various alternatives (e.g. FTTrN) and have also been deploying 330Mbps capable FTTP in some remote areas.

The committee were also concerned by BT’s indication that the current 2017 target could be delayed to 2018, which is supported by evidence from some of the recent phase 2 contract signings (although we won’t get the full picture until all of the contracts are agreed). On top of that they called for the Government to set out at clear plan for connecting the final 5% to superfast speeds.

Anne McIntosh MP, Committee Chair, said:

People living in the hard-to-reach 5% of premises need the same access as the rest to online and digital services. There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none.

We are concerned that the current broadband rollout targets are based on inaccurate assumptions that universal basic broadband coverage has largely been achieved when the reality is that many rural communities are still struggling with no access, or slow broadband speeds.”

The report goes on to make a number of interesting recommendations, such as the provision of subsidised access (voucher scheme) to Satellite broadband for those who are unable to access fixed-line broadband or broadband of basic speeds.

However the report equally warns that Satellitewill not fill all the gaps” and “the technology itself can suffer from delay and reliability issues,” which is one of the reasons why we view it as a stop-gap measure since it will never be able to fully compete with an affordable and flexible low latency fixed line connection. We’ve summarised some of the other highlights and recommendations below.

DEFRA Rural Broadband Report – Highlights & Recommendations

* We were concerned to hear BT tell us that the present target of 95% of premises receiving superfast broadband by 2017 may slip. Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) must make it clear that the target date must be met. A target date for when the last 5% of premises will obtain access to superfast broadband coverage must be published.

* For many services, 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) is already an outdated figure, and 10 Mbps is increasingly recommended as a suitable USC for standard provision. The Government must reassess whether the 2 Mbps Universal Service Commitment remains a valid one.

* Councils need access to timely data from BT that allows them accurately to monitor take-up of broadband. Equally, they need access to timely data from BT about planned broadband coverage and speed. It has been argued that distributing information about broadband coverage on a postcode by postcode basis can be misleading. An ‘enabled’ postcode does not necessarily mean that each premise within the postcode is enabled.

* We are surprised that no assessment of the first phase of contracts with BT has been published before the phase two and three contracts are signed. Phase two contracts being signed must include provisions to ensure that local councils and BT keep local communities up-to-date with planned broadband coverage and speed. Information about rollout should be delivered on a premise-by-premise basis as opposed to by postcode.

* The [Rural Payments Agency] must have a contingency plan in case the new online-only [Common Agricultural Policy] CAP application system proves difficult to use for farmers with limited broadband capability. The new software has not yet been tested by the number of users who will access the site in May, and some of those doing so will be using online services for the first time. The contingency plan should be able to respond to the software not functioning at the level required or with users not being able effectively to access the software.

* The allocation of funding between urban and rural areas is greatly unbalanced. Those who live in urban areas have on average higher percentage coverage of superfast broadband, coupled with access to voucher schemes which can subsidise access. Rural areas are lagging behind. Those in poorly connected areas are sometimes asked to pay twice: once through their taxes for the Government-funded Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme and potentially again from their own pockets if the BDUK programme does not reach them.

* The [£10m] Innovation Fund [this is testing different broadband technologies in rural areas] is the first step to providing superfast coverage to the last 5%. The results of the pilot test must be published and the most suitable schemes rolled out nationally.

Naturally the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has become one of the first to welcome today’s report and support its calls for a faster USC and Satellite vouchers. The CLA President, Henry Robinson, said: “We are pleased MPs have listened carefully to the evidence we set out to them. The Committee is right to conclude that a minimum speed of two Megabits per second (Mbps) is now too slow a speed for modern requirements. It is also right to press the Government to review this, but it is a shame the report stopped short of calling for a Universal Service Obligation. It is clear that rural areas have fallen behind.”

The full report doesn’t contain many surprises and indeed Ofcom has also spent the past couple of years suggesting that 8-10Mbps would make a reasonable USC, although we are concerned that Satellite is increasingly being viewed as a fix for the final 5%, which overlooks the technologies many restrictions; not least in terms of high latency and capacity (small data allowances and throttling).

Otherwise most of what the report recommends are either already being considered or have been already raised by prior studies and inquiry’s.

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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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