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BT Set to Promise Faster Broadband for the Final 5 Percent of the UK

Monday, September 21st, 2015 (11:03 am) - Score 2,036
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Reports suggest that BT’s CEO, Gavin Patterson, will tomorrow outline a new plan for expanding the reach of faster broadband services to the final 5% of premises in the United Kingdom (most of those are in remote rural locations).

At present BT’s existing deployment alongside the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme is already helping to push superfast broadband (24Mbps+) connectivity out to 95% of premises by 2017/18, while reaching the final 5% is considered much more challenging / expensive and the Government are currently finalising a plan for that (expected in the Autumn Statement).

In the meantime it’s no secret that BT are under a lot of pressure right now, not least from rivals that want to see them being broken-up (here). As such one way for the operator to win back hearts and minds might be to make a bold commitment that would improve connectivity to the final 5%.

The Sunday Times suggests that this is exactly what Patterson intends to do tomorrow and at the same time he will also elaborate on their plans for the commercial deployment of 500Mbps capable G.fast broadband technology, which we’ve recently been covering quite a lot (here).

However it’s worth noting that the Times piece appears to conflate G.fast with the 5% announcement, perhaps incorrectly, although it is entirely conceivable that they could make use of the technology alongside Fibre-to-the-remote-Node (FTTrN) and Fibre-to-the-Distribution-Point (FTTdp) to tackle rural areas too (power supply may be a problem).

In our view it’s also unlikely that BT wouldn’t have first discussed this with BDUK, which has already touted a Satellite fix for the most remote final 1-2% (here) and has been testing a number of alternative network technologies (e.g. fixed wireless) for the other 3% or so. So would this mean a wasted effort on those altnet pilots and or more criticism of public funding being used to prop-up BT? We’ll have to wait and see.

In any case we don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that BT could simply extend their existing FTTC / VDSL “fibre broadband” to reach 97% of the UK, although the big question would be whether or not that delivers “superfast” (24Mbps+) speeds. The Government has said before that they aspire to 100% being within reach of superfast, so they’d probably have to deliver it.

On the other hand BT might just announce its own Satellite product or some kind of 4G based solution, given their pending EE purchase.

UPDATE 22nd September 2015

The announcement is out (here).

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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39 Responses
  1. DTMark

    (coughs) Not satellite, 4G. The EE purchase will do it.

    VDSL, deployed absolutely everywhere, is not going to reach anything like 95% coverage at so-called superfast speeds.

    There is nowhere near enough FTTP in the mix for this “plan” (I’ll call it an “aim”) to be fulfilled.

    And that’s before a real-world speed study eventually reveals the extent to which VDSL does not perform to anything like the supposed coverage that it was meant to – the elephant in the room will begin to make noise eventually.

  2. BuckleZ

    Correct. It will be done with 4G femto routers – as a trial is going on at present 🙂

    • Craski

      “4G femto routers – as a trial is going on at present”
      There are also satellite trials (and various others) ongoing at present but that doesnt mean any of them are necessarily going to provide a solution for all of the final 5%. Unless you have some inside knowledge, its just hearsay.

    • BuckleZ

      Well, I trial for BT and not seen anything for satellite. but I have been emailed about trialing the 4G femto solution

    • BuckleZ

      Im guessing they will be providing 4G coverage via a wireless soltuion too aswell as the femto trial

  3. DTMark

    I’m still not quite seeing how BT’s fixed line and 4G offerings are going to sit together.

    For example we stick with 4G because it’s faster than VDSL. Once BT buy EE, going on the “up to” advertising the industry is so keen on, 4G walks all over VDSL. It’s up to 100/50 versus 76/19. So based on that, 4G is vastly superior.

    In reality I’ve never seen more than 52/50 here. However if 4G is the solution for everyone connected to the other cab in our village which doesn’t have VDSL, and where fixed line is between 0.5 and 2.5 Meg, that’s about 150 premises drawing on 100 Meg of capacity.

    So on headline speeds it’s superfast broadband and then some. In reality, it might just fulfil the 2 Meg+ requirement because that would probably be about the average real world speed.

    • Steve Jones

      Simple. 4G “femto cells” will need fibre backhaul. Even if there is some use of wireless backhaul, that has limitations and will need many fibre connection points.

    • 3G Infinity

      A 4G Femto cell is designed for indoor use, it will therefore need access to a broadband connection of sorts so will not be a solution for hard to reach areas. The femto has 2 limitations, i) not enough power for outdoor use (if it did it would potentially interfere with the macro network and b) it only supports hard handover, ie calls in progress will drop when you go out of range and not do a soft handover to the nearest macro cell.

      A small cell solution, eg as EE are already deploying, which backhauls a 4G small cell via fixed wireless to the nearest main cell site is most likely. This doesn’t suffer the above issues and could serve a small community quite well.

    • Steve Jones

      Perhaps not femtocell then, but picocell. In an event, it still needs backhaul of some sort.

    • MikeW

      @DTMark
      “going on the “up to” advertising the industry is so keen on, 4G walks all over VDSL”

      The problem is that the “industry” (there’s really more than one) uses “up to” in two or three different ways.

      DSL-based fixed-line broadband uses “up to” primarily because of distance limitations. A generic advert has to use “up to” because they don’t know what distance your property sits from the DSLAM. Congestion is a secondary limitation.

      HFC-based cable broadband uses “up to” primarily because of congestion limitations using a shared cable. A generic advert has to use “up to” because they don’t know whether your cable segment is going to be over-utilised at any moment in time, and it doesn’t need many busy subscribers for that to happen.

      4G-based mobile broadband suffers both of these problems. Primarily, the air interface is a shared medium … so the top “up to” speed is almost never going to be available to a single subscriber. The distance problem also applies, as there are power limitations. If your router/dongle sits near the edge of a cell, you will get speeds far slower than the “up to” maximum.

      4G might have the ability to market itself with a huge “up to” limitation, but only if you use the limits of the technology. But it just isn’t there for any one user when the service is used in practice – never mind for 10%.

      Is there even one 4G operator that markets a live, purchasable service with an “up to” speed? Anything even approaching 100/50? EE market themselves as “fastest” and “double speed”, but without making any “up to” claims whatsoever.

      EE *do* list some small print, for “double speed”, of “Speeds based on EE test data 2014 (average speeds doubled from 12-15Mbps to 24-30Mbps) and doubling 4G network capacity from 2 x 10MHz to 2x 20MHz. Speeds referred to are download speeds. 4G speeds depend on location and number of users.”

      Average speed for VDSL2, even when short lines are capped to just 80 Mbps, appears to be in the region of 50-60Mbps. It looks like 4G, even doubled, doesn’t actually walk all over VDSL.

    • DTMark

      I think that I covered those points. In reality a transmitter that can supply 100Mbs cannot sensibly be a superfast solution for much more than about ten homes.

      If the transmitter capacity goes up to 300Mbps then it can cover more homes, but it’s still very limited.

      The backhaul needs to be there, but if they’re fibre-supplied transmitters, this is not where the issue lies. The issue will, however, always lie with 4G’s capabilities as they stand right now.

      So 4G can be a 2Mbps+ solution with ease for larger areas or a superfast solution for extremely small areas.

      I have an uneasy feeling that once BT have EE, it will be used as the 2Mbps solution because the network will become much more heavily loaded, and the result of the BDUK project will be that the superfast broadband we used to be able to get, delivered commercially by EE, will be taken away actually removing superfast coverage here.

  4. Craski

    Optimistic view: I would love to see and end to the never ending #ExploringSolutions and see a technical solution with a viable plan.

    Less optimistic view: Fear it will be usual empty promises with little subsistence, possible even some weak words around providing a 5 Mbps universal service commitment by 2020 in efforts to keep Ofcom of their backs short term.

  5. Steve Jones

    This is clearly part of BT’s strategy to fight off the break-up option. Essentially we will find the money to “fix” the last 5% (cost maybe £2bn) if you leave us largely alone. That’s the carrot to the regulator and, even more politicians (especially Conservative MPs – they have a higher proportion of rural properties; at least in England.

    The stick will be a hugely complex negotiation with the threat of legal action over the terms of any spit up. During what interval, would undoubtedly last several years there would be a virtually halt in new substantial NGA investment beyond BDUK contracts.

    Whether such a commitment could be made legally binding is an interesting question (although I think it would be de-facto binding).

    So the regulator will have a question to answer. So (as they did with the last settlement) go with a certainty or take a major risk.

    • DTMark

      What seems most strange is the timing of this. The government has just filled BT’s begging bowl to build a broadband network. And now, apparently, BT are inadequate for our needs going forward. Something doesn’t quite compute.

      Reading between the lines, I wonder if this is as a result of BT reneging on the contract, most specifically the 2 Meg for everyone part (due this year, is it not), either through direct contract breach or some carefully crafted get-out clauses that BDUK waved through when they signed off the contracts and now the government has egg all over their proverbial faces.

    • Steve Jones

      If BT had renegade on a BDUK contract, don’t you think it would have been all over the papers by now, not to mention in the courts? There isn’t actually any evidence that the 2mbps USC was ever included in any of the framework contracts. No doubt there were targets over what could be delivered over physical lines (plus some “best endeavours” statements), but satellite was always the fallback, and those were BDUK commitments, not contractual ones. A lot of this is down to poor reporting and politician obfuscating what has been contracted (to be fair, probably a lot of political misunderstandings too). There’s also the issue of EU state aid rules in that, from my readings, they were only allowed for the NGA speed improvements. Anything lower than that is only a side-effect and not justifiable on those terms alone.

      As for the timing being odd, it’s anything but. It’s clearly part of BT’s proposal to Ofcom for the review.

    • DTMark

      Contract breach would be difficult to ascertain given that the public were not allowed to see the contracts. Only BT, BDUK and the local authorities would know.

      That said, for the two or three that were leaked, the 2Mps for all requirement was explicitly included.

      Local authorities will be feeling pressure from residents wondering why their money hasn’t brought any upgrades in their areas, typically, those worst served.

      It isn’t possible that these can still be subject to “exploring solutions” because BT would have known, with an hour’s work with a database programmer, where those areas were right from the outset, years ago.

      “Exploring solutions” seems to mean “We don’t have a solution which fits the budget”.

      And so, back to the contracts..

    • Ignition

      Steve – that post is a very erudite one and reads the situation beautifully. BT have historically always adopted the carrot and stick approach with the carrot dangled first and the stick held back if required.

      I have no doubt that through a combination of wireless, microwave backhaul, xDSL, G.fast, and FTTP BT can produce solutions for much of the last 5%.

      These solutions will no doubt be derided as a superfarce as they aren’t point to point fibre but it is what it is.

    • Steve Jones

      @DTMark

      What do you mean “public bodies weren’t allowed to see the contracts”? The contracts will have been fully visible to those local officers, both elected and employed who had the job of negotiating these contracts. That doesn’t mean the contract details were all discussed in open council sessions (or at least not the bits subject to commercial confidentiality clauses). It’s he job of the officials involved to interpret those for the elected officers not present. It is elected officers who ultimately give it authorisation. There will also be lawyers employed by the local project plus support from BDUK.

      What I suspect happens is it suits politicians to rather overstate what has been contracted.

    • Steve Jones

      @Ignition

      Thanks for those kind comments. There is a very good argument that the most important job for BT (or any company under very close regulation) is in the negotiation with the regulatory body. A major row could cause huge damage, and it can go both ways. I’m sure that BT only agreed to the “equivalence” principle and the setting up of OR and BTW within their current regulatory framework under intense pressure. It’s a high stakes game for all concerned.

    • DTMark

      I didn’t say that the public bodies weren’t allowed to see them, rather the public – e.g. you and I – were not allowed to see them.

      So the media could not pick up a contract breach because they are not in possession of either the facts about the deployments nor the original contract stipulations.

      They are however aware of the promises made by governments, for instance, the other half of our village could reasonably expect to all be getting upgrades so that they can get at least 2Mbps by the end of this year. No statement to the contrary has been issued.

  6. gerarda

    @steve jones

    This would suggest 2mbps for all is a standard BDUK requirement

    http://www.superfastnorthamptonshire.net/find-out-more/Documents/cabinet%20progress%20report.pdf point 2

    • Steve Jones

      Yes, but it doesn’t say over fixed network. In any event, I not that they wer planning to change the requirement of the contract

      “agree that the County Council seeks BDUK approval to remove the 2015 minimum 2Mbps
      universal service commitment from the current contract with BT, with budgeted
      funds transferred to deliver superfast broadband solutions to more areas more quickly; and any universal service commitment deferred until 2017”

      So in the first instance it appears to be the project that is deferring the 2mbps commitment (and redeploying the funds). It’s also unclear how the 2mbps commitments was to be met anyway.

    • DTMark

      BT must have planned in detail how it was going to be delivered before they accepted the contract to deliver it.

      Having contracted the supplier to deliver the supposedly most expensive and most challenging bit, all agreed and signed off – it doesn’t make sense for the LA to now remove the most challenging part and place themselves in a position where project failure is guaranteed.

      On the face of it, it looks like BT have run rings around BDUK, and the threat of splitting up BT may be a response to that realisation.

    • Steve Jones

      @DTmark

      They will have planned in outline. Do you really think it’s possible to do detailed surveys for dozens of contracts covering many millions of lines and tens of thousands of cabinets over the few months of the tendering process? Anybody who has gone through tendering large contracts knows its a very expensive and resource intensive process and there are only a limited number of people to do the job.

    • gerarda

      point 4.13 of the document suggests the BDUK solution was probably not satellite

    • DTMark

      Identifying the “problem areas”, which in BT terms means “the areas that won’t get 2Mbps even if VDSL were used everywhere” is an hour’s work or less with a database and a SQL programmer. Probably ten minutes to write the query the rest of the time to run it for the entire country and then dump the results into a spreadsheet.

      From that an assessment can be made regarding the size of the challenge and a high level costing produced, which would draw out which counties/LAs will be the most expensive, for instance.

      If the contracts were all stipulated “100% to get 2Mbps+” (not just the ones we saw) and they surely must have been, since this was one of the key project goals, then it’s a matter of budget and risk transference.

      Risk should logically be BT’s because they’re the ones tendering and it’s a key project goal. If BT did not feel they could provide the solution, why did they accept the contract? What are the penalties for breach of said contract – these must have been written in.

      Otherwise it would be very easy for BT to hold the position “give us all the money and we’ll see what we can do” – I’d like to think that no government body would be stupid and reckless enough to sign off such a contract.

      I’d like to think so, anyway. That this is still an issue and there are still areas “Exploring solutions” suggests that this is, more or less, what has actually happened.

      Three months to go until Hampshire’s spectacular project failure..

    • TheManStan

      Isn’t there an issue with State Aid?
      The decision to drop basic broadband is because intervention is not allowed twice.
      So if LocalGov demanded basic BB, then they would not be able to support a further increment to NGA… so pretty much every single authority will have dumped basic in favour of NGA extensions.

      Which is made clear:

      http://www.superfastberkshire.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=24071

      So BT probably felt sure that this would be removed as a requirement as it would be unattractive to LocalGov.

    • gerarda

      I think Berkshire’s reading of the state aid guidelines is incorrect. Providing a step change in speed is made each time there can be multiple funding. This is appears to be DCMS’s view as they are encouraging the use of satellite as an interim measure.

    • Ignition

      Anything under 30Mb, regardless of whether it has BDUK-funded FTTC or not, is eligible for state aid.

      In Surrey and other places properties on the edge of intervention area cabinets unable to achieve 24Mb/30Mb are having FTTP deployed to them, again on the BDUK tab.

    • themanstan

      Unfortunately, it´s more the previous BT handout for ADSL in rural areas that will count and the difference between the service received now and basic broadband is not a step change…

  7. Patrick Cosgrove

    If BT has cracked G fast/FTTRN deployment, this makes it easy for local authorities to determine the next steps. That doesn’t necessarily provide the best technological solution but it does meet targets and keeps most users happy for the next few years. On the other hand it may simply be an attempt to upstage any announcement by BDUK on the results of their own “alternative” trials. I’ve heard it rumoured that such an announcement is imminent. If BT can deploy new technologies successfully, it probably puts paid to any attempt by BDUK to create a genuinely competitive market. Chickens from 2012 decisions coming home to roost.

    • Steve Jones

      BDUK were never going to create a competitive market at the infrastructure (rather than retail) level. In fact the very definition of BDUK means that it could not do so as it was explicitly set up (and only allowed) to intervene in areas where there was market failure. That is in areas which were deemed to be uneconomic for commercial providers via the market survey mechanism.

      At best, BDUK could create local monopolies for infrastructure network services. That’s not really competition in any one area. As it is, wholesale charges for the intervention areas are exactly the same as for 60% of households under direct competition from VM’s network.

      It’s Ofcom’s role to foster competition, not BDUK’s, although the impact of the project on competition in infrastructure was examined by the Oxera report; largely its conclusions were that there was a significant danger that, in the intervention areas, Openreach’s market position would be strengthened, although they also concluded that there was little prospect of significant levels of commercial competition in the intervention areas anyway.

  8. Steve Jones

    @DTMark

    Apologies I misread. However, it’s hardly unusual for public sector contracts not to be published verbatim, especially on areas deemed to be commercially sensitive. I think there could have been more transparency on what was actually contracted to be delivered though.

    Of course one reason why large parts of the contract were deemed to be commercially confidential is that BDUK chose (for very good reasons), not to go for fixed price contracts for particular deliverables but wanted it based on BT’s best internal costs and to share in any cost savings. The alternative would have been some form of quote based on a formula without access to detailed invoices (like equipment and contractor invoices). It’s also obvious that BT’s costs in the more rural areas were highly uncertain given that much of the ducting hadn’t been touched in many decades and nobody would have much idea how much work would be required. Lots of uncertainties and no doubt a lot of replanning based on what was actually found.

    Personally I think there were lots of caveats in the contracts and it suited politicians to fudge over those.

  9. Dave King

    All I want to know is, am I going to get a usable broadband in the near future? I have had to put up with 750K since dial-up. All BT have to do is get the basics right. I am 2 miles away from a fibre enabled cabinet with the exchange 2 miles in the opposite direction. But unable to get a fibre connection because of my line length. Apparently a total length of 6.5 miles.(were the F**k it goes nobody nose or cares) Some of my lucky neighbours have a EO line and have plus 5mbs speeds.
    So a waste of money this project is when BT can’t even ‘ping’ a line.
    This is all just BULL S**T

  10. Gavin

    I recon a subsidised 4G tarrife, as 4g in rural areas will not get fully utilised any way. The problem will be the download limits. It will not be unlimited like most home broadband packages.

  11. Hawkeye

    This kind of statement by BT is design to maximise the continued broadband network market failure in the UK. The statement is intended maximise uncertainty and thus inhibit network providers from making investment decisions and keep consumers hanging on indefinitely for “jam tomorrow”.

    And so it appears to be a determined dis-information strategy by BT: so long as we are all stupid enough to believe there is jam tomorrow they will keep peddling it.

    Hey everyone! Jam tomorrow! Jam tomorrow! Jam tomorrow! Do you feel better now? Will you ever get just desserts..?

  12. G Parke

    Dear Mr Chairman,

    I have an order number for the promised super fast infinity that was due 6 days ago.
    I also have a BT Complaints number as well because it is said that your engineers have no key to get into the new sparkling green cabinet that has recently been installed at great expense.
    I have spoken to India and complained in writing at the dreadful waste of time and energy not to mention MONEY.
    As an ex BT employee on a BT pension now I thought you may be interested in this ongoing saga here in leafy Derbyshire.
    Can you help or do you not care???
    “Sorry Madam” means nothing if no one really actually cares!
    I do look forward to hearing from you asap.
    Regards,

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