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UK Digital Minister Ed Vaizey Pledges Clarity on Broadband Coverage

Tuesday, Jul 14th, 2015 (2:52 pm) - Score 1,202

The Government’s Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, has promised to make it “absolutely clear” where superfast broadband will be delivered during the coming autumn and he will publish a firm plan for reaching the final 5% “before the end of the year“. But he also asked colleagues to stop their “long whinge” against the project.

At present the Broadband Delivery UK programme aims to extend the coverage of fixed “superfast broadband” services to 95% of homes by 2017 (we predict that this might slip into 2018), which is predominantly being conducted through contracts signed with BT. A few alternative network operators, such as Gigaclear and Airband, are also involved.

Never the less the programme, which appears to be making reasonable progress towards its goal(s), has suffered from a few notable problems along the way and some of those can create frustration. A number of these were raised in yesterday’s Parliament debate, which focused on Suffolk (here) and also contained a lot of more general remarks.

A Quick Summary of Key BDUK Gripes (13th July 2015 Debate)

* BT having a tendency to renege on promises, such as when it originally planned to roll out to a village and then later chooses not to do so.

* The lack of superfast broadband deployment for business parks.

* BT “being tardy” with installing additional capacity to street cabinets where demand is high.

* The lack of a firm plan and funding for reaching the final 5% of premises.

The first issue, reneging on a promise to cover certain areas, harks back to last year’s dilemma over the lack of detail in related local authority coverage maps. At the time both BT and councils were fearful of releasing too much data about the planned roll-out because they were subject to change and nobody wanted to dash local hopes later on (i.e. you can’t always tell what problems will arise until the physical construction work begins).

As a result the roll-out data was marked as tentative, with new areas being added in and others taken out as the programme progressed. Unfortunately this also presented a problem for altnet ISPs, which struggled to secure public funding from the £20m RCBF fund because officially BT wouldn’t confirm which areas they could exclude for altnets to tackle. In the end many altnets stopped trying.

Ed Vaizey said:

When BT gets on the ground and does the mapping exercises, it might find that getting to a particular village is more complicated than it had thought, so it revises its plan. There is no doubt that that causes great consternation to villagers who were expecting broadband to be delivered.

It is my intention in the autumn to update all relevant Members of the House on the progress of broadband in their constituencies to make it absolutely clear where broadband will be delivered. It is important to warn those who might be at the tail end of the programme that they might have to wait some time. We cannot deliver it overnight.”

However we have our doubts about whether Ed Vaizey can truly expect to make “it absolutely clear where broadband will be delivered” because the same problem of planning (subject to change) may continue to exist as BDUK Phase 2 contracts begin their deployment phases.

Vaizey also touched on the issue of business parks by suggesting that BT “has some problems with customer service“, although he also expressed “surprise” as to why some business parks were unable to get better connectivity when there are “600 registered suppliers all over the country” for the Connection Voucher scheme (i.e. grants worth up to £3,000 to help SME’s get superfast broadband installed).

Sadly Vaizey’s comments overlook how most of those suppliers are tied to the existing restrictions of BTOpenreach’s infrastructure. On top of that if you’re a small business and Openreach can only provide either slow ADSL or an expensive Leased Line into an area then your affordable options for upgrade may feel somewhat limited (grants aren’t useful for all situations).

The issue of street cabinet capacity also cropped up and we have seen some areas where BTOpenreach has appeared to be slow in upgrading areas, particularly when demand is so strong that it fills up all the available FTTC lines in a short space of time. But this also happens to locations that exist outside of the BDUK project too (example) and Vaizey said, “I suspect that it is more to do with BT customer service than any sinister plot to deny broadband to customers who are waiting.

Finally, Vaizey came to the issue of tackling the final 5%, which will come under the last Phase 3 of the Broadband Delivery UK programme for the period post 2017/18. At present BDUK is testing a number of different fibre optic, hybrid fibre, fixed wireless and or Satellite solutions for reaching these areas and we now know when the final strategy might surface.

Ed Vaizey said:

Finally, I hear what my hon. Friend says about the final 5% and I am keen to announce plans as soon as possible, and certainly before the end of the year, about how we intend to reach that final 5%. It is certainly our intention to leave no one behind and we think that there are two or three different ways in which we can secure a timely roll-out for the final 5% so that by the end of this Parliament virtually everyone in this country will have access to very fast superfast broadband speeds.”

It’s notable that Vaizey plays it safe with his prediction, which uses the wording “virtually everyone” to imply that 100% coverage of “very fast superfast broadband speeds” (very fast superfast? 🙂 ) might not actually be achieved; although they’ve already indicated that Satellite should make it possible, if not an ideal connectivity solution. Managing expectations. Vaizey also said he was “certain that BT will be able to exceed its contracted plans“.

At this point it should be noted that Europe’s Digital Agenda target hopes that the UK and other EU states make 30Mbps+ services available to 100% of homes by 2020, which includes having 50% of consumers subscribed to a 100Mbps+ service. The last 100Mbps target might actually be achievable between BT’s commercial G.fast and Virgin Media’s cable network expansion.

Mark-Jackson
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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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