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UPDATE MPs Prep Yet Another Rural Broadband Debate at Westminster

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 (11:04 am) - Score 2,091

The Devon (Tiverton and Honiton) MP, Neil Parish, will this afternoon (2:30pm) host yet another live streamed debate at Westminster Hall on the management and delivery of faster broadband connectivity to remote rural areas. Parish will be flanked by fellow Conservative MP Richard Bacon and Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt.

Over the past few months we’ve reported on countless similar debates and reports, most of which have stemmed from political circles, and all of which focus on the same subject. In a way the whole thing is beginning to grind, not least because the Government’s £1.7bn Broadband Delivery UK programme continues to tack along roughly the same course as it set in 2010/11.

No doubt there will be the usual criticism of BT’s dominance in related contracts, as well as concern over how best to deliver and fund superfast broadband (24Mbps+) to the final 5% of remote areas and plenty more along the same lines. Naturally the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA) are also keen to have their say (details).

CLA President, Henry Robinson, said:

We urge MPs to keep the pressure on this vitally important issue. The figures are stark. Ten to 15 percent of the population still cannot get broadband. The Government is only aiming to hit 95 percent by 2017. This still leaves at least five percent with no access to the internet and no target set for when full coverage will finally be delivered.

The rural economy is at risk because Defra and the Rural Payments Agency are the first government departments to move to a ‘digital-by-default’ strategy.

Online applications for farm payments under the Common Agricultural Policy are being rolled out so an effective, reliable and affordable broadband connection for farming businesses has never been more important. Farmers and landowners are reliant on these vital payments for providing food, water and protecting the environment. Yet more than 10 percent of these businesses are struggling to get online to apply.”

Hopefully this afternoon’s debate will also include some reflection for the fact that the programme, despite its well documented flaws, has at least made good progress given the significant technical challenges and limited funding involved. It may even still achieve the original 90% coverage goal on time, although even a slight slip would still be pretty good going for such a huge project.

Coincidentally Patrick Cosgrove, a well-known broadband campaigner for Shropshire, informs us that the House of Commons has just published a new note on broadband performance across the United Kingdom. The note doesn’t actually tell us anything new, although it does include an interesting map of broadband performance by parliamentary constituency (see below).

Otherwise readers can tune in to Watch the Debate Live, although we’d be quite surprised if it resulted in any tangible changes to the current BDUK programme beyond what we already know. Now here’s that map, which uses a House of Commons Library analysis (estimate) of detailed postcode-level data published by Ofcom’s Infrastructure Report in December 2014..

broadband speeds map by parlimentary constituency uk 2014

UPDATE 12:53pm

It’s worth pointing out that some of the CLA’s remarks above are in conflict with the data supplied by Ofcom. For example, the CLA states that “Ten to 15 percent of the population still cannot get broadband” and yet Ofcom states that 97% of the UK are able to access speeds of at least 2Mbps.

The CLA also said that 5% have “no access to the internet“, which may not reflect the actual availability of related connection technologies as basic Internet connectivity is already nearly universal (100%).

Granted we don’t always put a lot of faith in Ofcom’s assessment of broadband coverage based on service speeds and underlying technology, but on these points they’re probably closer to the mark than the CLA.

Leave a Comment
29 Responses
  1. Avatar gerarda says:

    A lot of detailed stats, the compilation of which was a waste of time as the Ofcom data on which they are based ignored areas of non-availability

    1. Avatar gerarda says:

      mark

      In relation to your update I cannot believe that you have quoted ofcoms assertion of near 100% ADSL availability as it it were fact when you have seen Ofcom’s response to my FOI request. http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/foi/2015/january/1-276796191.pdf

  2. Avatar DTMark says:

    But this is so easy to solve. All that needs to happen is for BDUK to reassure everyone that:

    1. The targets will be met (90% superfast, everyone 2 Meg). You don’t get to this stage of a project without knowing that for certain.

    2. All the detailed planning work was done and agreed before a supplier was selected. The selection of the supplier for a project is necessarily based on the ability of that supplier to deliver the project objectives for the budgeted spend.

    3. That detailed planning work necessarily goes down to street level guaranteeing that the targets above will be met. Money is not at issue here, if it were, then the projects would not and could not have proceeded. BDUK would not have signed off the contracts if they did not meet the objectives for this or other reasons. That was the purpose of this checkpoint.

    4. Measuring success: at the early stages, the methodology to measure success against objectives was agreed. The name of the independent consultancy to undertake that can surely now be published. This would all have been worked out at the start.

    5. Going further: Ed Vaizey has already clarified that all the money necessary to deliver superfast speeds for 100% has been found now. That statement surely cannot have been vacuous politician speak, and must have followed the detailed analysis above. So we can now set target dates for that.

    It’s all so easy. Unless anything that I have written is very wide of the mark.

    In which case, you would then have to question what has gone wrong, call an immediate halt to the project, and analyse a way forward before any more money is spent.

    1. Avatar NGA for all says:

      As you say it is not money issue. The project is awash with money given the average cab/fin path is recognised to be £23k. – (£23k x 30k cabs = c£700m of the £1.2bn phase 1 +BT £500m)

      The issue is thus resource. BT plans to do c200 cabs a week through to 2017 and collect all the cash they can.

      However, with the growing levels of scrutiny they will need to do more FTTP I suggest to deliver the depth of service possible and absorb the funds available.

      The depth of service needed demanded more people from the 2012 signing, but I assume with all these confidentiality agreements some folk in BT thought they do the job specified using 95% cabinets.

      To spend the monies available (includes clawback, USC premiums, excess modelled costs and BT capital contributions) with the existing resource they will need to keep going through to 2019/20.

    2. Avatar PeterM says:

      “The targets will be met (90% superfast, everyone 2 Meg). You don’t get to this stage of a project without knowing that for certain”
      Even the 2 Meg for everyone is doubtful her in West Chiltington. We still have long lines on dial up, with no plans in in the public domain for any improvement.

    3. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      1) Agreed.

      2) It’s wildly impractical for detailed planning to have been done before a contract was placed. No supplier is going to spend the simply huge amounts of money required to perform detailed planning in advance of a contract placement. That’s even before the issue of how much time it takes to perform the required surveys and design works. Realistically speaking, I’d expect a bid to include an outline strategy for each area with credible statistics and ability to implement.

      3) See above. No supplier will have been able to perform street level planning ahead of contract placement. It’s an exercise that takes years, not weeks.

      4) The NAO report covers issues of auditing deliverables and what BDUK have in place.

      5) As nobody has yet determined what technology is to be used for the last 5%, then who knows how much that is going to cost. Already one of the trials for this has hit objections.

      In any event, it’s important to distinguish between contracted objectives and political/project ones. As it currently stands, then there doesn’t seem to be much reason to believe that contractual deliveries won’t be met in the overwhelming number of cases (in a project this size there will no doubt be some localised slippages).

      However, what I think will be controversial is the USC as satellite was always mooted as a solution for the most difficult to reach locations. That one is going to run and run.

    4. Avatar DTMark says:

      (1) and (3) work together. To work out where VDSL will suffice and where alternative technologies will need to be used to a reasonable standard of fidelity is perhaps a day’s work with a database and competent SQL programmer.

      I think what we’re talking about is risk transference, reference poor quality line plant for instance.

      BT can’t have this both ways, by simultaneously saying “We are well placed to deliver this, give us the contract” and then in the next breath “But we might not be because half of the ducting is collapsed and a significant enough number of the lines are falling to pieces”.

      .. and then back to opening line of this post.

    5. Avatar TheFacts says:

      The contract would be based on a number of blockages to be cleared.

    6. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      @DTMark

      Never heard of estimates based on known characteristics? It’s a standard approach to many project plans. You don’t know the exact detail of everything to be done, but you have basic statistical information available on the target and experience from past work. In this case, BT will have information related to the lengths of lines from cabinets, EO lines, density of premises, E-side distances. Combine that with previous work and it’s possible to produce estimates of how many properties could be serviced by FTTC cabinets, where it could not. There will be information on typical issues with power supplies, duct clearance and so on.

      I also understand from reading the available documentation that the same basic level of information on lines, cabinets etc. was made available to all companies who responded to the ITT (although not BT’s experience of deploying FTTC of course).

      I’m not sure how many large scale projects you’ve been involved with, but it’s normal, especially in the early days, to have to plan on a broad-brush basis and then refine and re-plan as you go along (and, sometimes, even revisit requirements; sometimes because of unforseen issues, sometimes on the basis of better understanding by the client).

      Anyway, back to (1). The BDUK projects all ought to know to a fair degree of certainty by now that the contracted objectives will be met give, or take, a few hiccups. There will be a much clearer view of what remains to be done, what resources are required to do it and so on. Given that BT will suffer financially if contracted objectives haven’t been met, they have every incentive to do it (not to mention the PR issues of a major failure). It’s the need to deliver the BDUK projects that appears to have been behind the suspension of the FoD product as there is insufficient resource to meet it due to BDUK commitments.

    7. Avatar DTMark says:

      That being the case, the risk transference to the taxpayer is unacceptable. And unnecessary.

      Because, had BDUK said “risk is yours – do you want the project” the answer would still have been “Yes, please. We’d love a billion pounds of free money.”

      If this is the case, then (1) is in jeopardy as are all the deliverables.

    8. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      The financial risk is BT’s. Of course there’s a risk it won’t be delivered, but that’s why contracts have penalties in them.

      No project is risk free. Risk management is an inherent part of project management. There will be risk identification, risk assessment, risk registers, risk mitigation and much else. There is endless literature available on the subject.

      As far as BDUK goes, then all the projects should have a very good idea by now on the probability of delivering to their objectives and what the risks are. If they haven’t, then something has gone profoundly wrong.

    9. Avatar fastman2 says:

      Because, had BDUK said “risk is yours – do you want the project” the answer would still have been “Yes, please. We’d love a billion pounds of free money.”

      what utters tosh — the public money has had to be matched so no free money !!!! but of course no one wants to know / hear / understand that
      .

    10. Avatar GNewton says:

      @TheFacts: “The contract would be based on a number of blockages to be cleared.”

      One of the most stupid suggestions I have read for a while.

      BTW.: How is your Google research going?

    11. Avatar DTMark says:

      “the public money has had to be matched so no free money !!!!”

      Do tell more. When is BT set to pay BDUK back all the money it received and is receiving in the form of a loan?

    12. Avatar TheFacts says:

      @GN – do you expect BT to have checked every duct before they bid for the contract? Engineering projects do not work like that in the real world.

    13. Avatar DTMark says:

      I would expect the government/local bodies to approach BT with the project aims and required deliverables and for BT to provide a quotation and estimate range to deliver.

      That could then be compared with a quote from a brand new operator to lay a new network, for example.

      BT claims advantage on the basis of those assets and so should have no problem shouldering the risk of blocked ductwork escalating costs.

      Either it is confident of delivering, or not.

    14. Avatar GNewton says:

      @TheFacts: “Engineering projects do not work like that in the real world.”

      You clearly are not familiar with Civil Engineering.

      Perhaps the council tax should be based on the number of potholes? You could suggest that to your local district 🙂

    15. Avatar MikeW says:

      @TheFacts: “Engineering projects do not work like that in the real world.”

      @GNewton: “You clearly are not familiar with Civil Engineering.”

      Funny that. There was a programme on TV about Crossrail the other day … the biggest civil engineering project in Europe at the moment (they said).

      Within that project, they discovered that 5 years of plans had to be changed at the last minute, because the existing tunnel under the royal docks sat closer to the bottom of the dock than they expected.

      And even when going ahead with their revised plan, with limited time to keep the dock entrance closed – they discovered the roof of the existing tunnel was lower than expected in places, leaving insufficient room for their new tunnel.

      Civil engineering is one of the things hit most by unexpected alterations – even when you can go the museum and find the original plans, rather than having to guess at a true unknown.

      A good job they started that section a year earlier than they thought they needed to.

      As another example; one reason everyone gets to crow about the high cost of HS2 is because of the high level of contingency that has been added (£14bn contingency within a total £42bn cost; 50% extra?). What else is the contingency for, other than to cope with plans that had to make a “best guess” at the time the bid was done?

      https://www.theirm.org/media/948367/HS2-Getting-it-right-by-managing-risk-V4.pdf

  3. Avatar jeep says:

    this is not a BT bash but they do seem to want all the cake & eat it, ie allowing other suppliers to have access to ducting etc only if they are willing to pay for upkeep of etc when they themselves aren’t even maintaining it or so it seems, until they actually have to in which case they blame delays on rollout etc on the state of said ducting& infrastructure.

    1. Avatar AndyH says:

      Don’t Openreach already offer PIA access where the cost covers the maintenance?

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      They do, but PIA as it stands isn’t like LLU. A well defined service with a regulated cost and no unknowns. With PIA an operator might get face with all the uncertainties, costs and delays that Openreach might encounter on their own deployments. There will be surveys, ducts might have to be cleared. That might involve roadworks.

      As such, it’s not going to be what most operators will want which I suspect will involve a lot more certainty in costs and timescales.

  4. Avatar Al says:

    The full report makes interesting reading, and as I already knew my ward is a nice deep shade of red.

  5. Avatar Steve Jones says:

    The CLA’s stats are bizarre, although if they are defining broadband as 10mbps then that might explain it. I was interested to see that they want a USO imposed on ISPs :-

    “However, the USC is not a legal guarantee that the benchmark will be met. Therefore, the Government must put in place a Universal Service Obligation (USO), a legal requirement that providers have to fulfil or face fines that would raise money to be reinvested in getting unconnected homes and businesses on line.

    The USO would be provided by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and not the government so the cost to the Exchequer would be neutral.”

    Of course this amounts to a demand for the imposition of a cross-subsidy, which is what happens with utilities such as electricity, water, mail and phone lines. That’s relatively easy to do in those cases as there’s a single dominant supplier (of you ignore VM for phone lines). However, it’s a big problem with broadband as, with a mix of LLU operators, BT wholesale services, VM and a number of small-scale Altnets (but with ambitions), there is no obvious way to finance this. One option that might be possible is to place a levy on operators in low-cost areas (what the CLA call fines) to subsidise rural areas. That would, of course, be highly controversial (I can’t imagine VM or LLU operators being happy, not to mention what it might do to alternative city fibre providers). It’s also at complete odds to what the BSG are saying as they seem to be favouring market-lead approaches with no transfer-charges such as the above.

    We’ll see, but the CLA should come clean. They are after a subsidy model for rural areas.

    1. Avatar Al says:

      I.m not opposed to a levy but then again I’m serviced by a non-LLU 20CN exc hange so it would benefit me. As it stands I can’t get any of these great deals so in essence I am paying more for an inferior service. The other alternative would be to impose pricing restrictions on non-LLU/uneconimcal exchanges that they can’t be charged more than say 110% of the LLU price. I would say whilst those in those areas might moan about speeds what they really resent is having to more more for slower speeds.

      Competition might work well for the majority of the country though bear in mind only 66% or so he country was deemed commercially viuable for FTTC/P with the tax payer picking up the rest. Do we continue down this path or impose a small levy of say 50p/month to fund improvements out to the less commerically viable areas?

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      At the last general election the Labour party did include a proposal for a 50p monthly levy on phone lines (but not on cable though). I doubt they’ll repeat that this time though. It wouldn’t actually go that far though as it would raise only about £180m a year (or about 1/10th of the BDUK budget).

      As far as costs go, then I assume you are proposing that all the ISPs would be compelled to offer services at the same price at all exchanges, whether LLU or not. I suppose it could be done (they’d have to use BTW wholesale services) and would probably lose money at those exchanges. (I think BT Consumer prices are the same).

  6. Avatar gerarda says:

    Looking at the transcript of the debate http://www.theyworkforyou.com/whall/?id=2015-03-04a.323.1 Ed Vaizey appears to have scrapped the USC.

    “For my hon. Friend’s benefit, I tell him that we have never changed our targets. We got rid of an unambitious target of 2 megabits at the end of 2012. We had an ambition, which I hope we will reach, of superfast broadband coverage of 90% by the end of 2015, and because of the huge success of this programme, we have added a further target to get to 95% by the end of 2017.”

    1. Avatar DTMark says:

      This was inevitable when the superfast broadband programme was quietly shelved and the objectives were then necessarily modified to fit with the project which replaced it, the ‘give money to BT to plug the pension pot and hopefully speed up the broadband a bit as suits BT’ project.

      The deceit lies with the government pretending that nothing changed. A quick search of this site will reveal the original superfast broadband project objectives and aims.

  7. Avatar MikeW says:

    Three things stood out to me

    1. That Vaizey confirmed (again) that the “homes reached” figure only included the 24Mbps+ properties. But this time he added that this was audited … so someone, somewhere, is checking.

    2. That the back-of-a-fag-packet calculation to reach the final 5% was £2bn. No statement about whether that was the cost, or the subsidy, or just the central government portion. In the context, it sounded to me like the total cost. That would be around £1500 per household.

    3. That one MP said their understanding was that the 2Mbps USC no longer applied, and authorities were free to trade the USC budget for increased fibre coverage.

    Unlike @gerarda’s quote above, this question seems to be genuinely about the current USC within the current BDUK phase 1 project, rather than the unfunded rump policy left over from the 2009 Labour government.

    There was no answer about this, but it ought to be worth following up.

    1. Avatar gerarda says:

      Failing to reply would tend to indicate he was avoiding confirming that it had been scrapped.

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