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HS2 Select Committee Calls for Train Project to Improve UK Broadband

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016 (12:11 pm) - Score 818
uk train

The High Speed Rail Committee has published its final report and called on the Government’s expensive High Speed Two (HS2) project, which aims to build a new rail link between London and the Midlands, to do more to improve broadband connectivity along the route.

The HS2 project is hugely expensive (estimates vary between around £50bn and £80bn) and along the way more than a few people have suggested that the money could be better spent on improving national broadband and road connectivity.

However it’s often overlooked that HS2 will also include the construction of a new “broadband superhighway” along the route (here), where high capacity fibre optic cables could be laid. But what hasn’t been clear is just what kind of benefit consumers can expect to receive from this or indeed whether the new cables will reach every part of that route or only certain areas.

Today’s final report has moved to tackle this concern, particularly with regards to the lack of specifics. In fact it notes that the bill only makes “passive provision for installation of broadband infrastructure on the route, but not actual installation such as ducting and cabling.”

Furthermore the committee found that several areas along the route, which will not stand to gain directly from the railway itself, lack good broadband and have been pressing the case for better Internet access to help “mitigate … some of the pain of [HS2’s] construction.”

High Speed Rail Committee Recommendation

The Government has said that commercial need and a commercially justifiable proposition would require to be demonstrated. It told us that most areas between London and Birmingham are planned to be “fairly well served” by fibre broadband providers, adding that it might be more efficient to provide more poorly served areas with broadband access via cabling not from the HS2 route but other rail routes, or road routes.

The Government accepted that this might not be the case everywhere. It noted that in the areas where it is not there would still need to be a demand for a commercially viable broadband service. The Promoter said it would be meeting the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the telecommunications industry in May 2016 to define the market, and level of demand.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport can establish which areas within, say, 3km of the HS2 route are unlikely to have superfast broadband provision and good 4G mobile telephone coverage by 2018 (the year after anticipated start of construction). Few if any of those living close to the route will benefit directly from the HS2 project.

The Government is wrong to believe that the test for providing broadband and mobile access is whether the telecommunications industry can be offered a commercially viable market in such localities. If commercial propositions are not speedily forthcoming the Government should fund the provision.

We do not direct whence the cabling comes; industry operators and Government can make a commercial assessment of that. We direct that, one way or another, the provision of a modern railway is to be associated with achieving modern high-speed communication along its route.

Mind you it’s worth considering that even if the Government choose to accept the above recommendation then it would still be many years before the benefit is felt and by then the problem might have been resolved, at least for some of the areas.

Phase One of the HS2 project is not even expected to start until 2017/18 and it won’t complete until around 2026, with the full project only being completed by around 2032/33.

Side Note: The above picture is not of an HS2 train.

Leave a Comment
13 Responses
  1. Avatar Steve Jones

    The issues over broadband provision are virtually nothing to do with lack of backbone capacity and everything to do with the local access network. Any contribution of the massively expensive HS2 project to UK broadband infrastructure will be peripheral at best. All this committee is proposing is to “buy off” local opposition by fixing some purely local broadband issues. In the big picture, it’s marginal at best.

    • Absolutely, but of course we’re not talking about the bigger UK picture as HS2 is only a very specific / limited area. So if you happen to be in one of those “marginal” areas then you might care a bit more if it’s passing in your vicinity.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      As Steve points out, backbone capacity is not an issue. And doing this could raise some complex state aid issues too.

      Rather than come up with an overly-complex way to appease local lobby groups, why not keep it simple and just put some additional funding into the relevant BDUK contracts that is directed towards named communities? This has the additional benefit that money isn’t lost to fund any form of procurement, nor is time wasted gaining state aid approval.

    • I suspect part of it may be because it’s always easiest / cheapest to build this stuff in, before you put the other bits on top, just as BT does with new builds when it’s engaged by the developer ahead of time rather than afterwards.

      HS2 need to allow suitable trench/duct space anyway for the other infrastructure that runs alongside, so sticking a fibre optic cable down the side won’t, in the grander scheme of things, be such a big ask. The question of how you then use that, beyond Network Rails own need, is of course an open one.

      As for the BDUK example, fair point and that’s why we highlighted the issue with unserved areas potentially being catered for via other means by the time HS2 is complete. But these are all questions that the Government need to answer.

    • Avatar wirelesspacman

      There would be fibre along the track route anyway in order to serve the railway’s own needs. Thus leaving space for additional cables is common sense and indeed encouraged by Brussels. Oops – perhaps that last sentence will be redundant come summer! 🙂

  2. Avatar TheManStan

    You could put fixed wifi all along the route… locals benefit and a train that gives decent BB for commuters…

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      Good luck on maintaining an IP service using trackside wifi on a train travelling at high speed. WiFi isn’t designed for rapid cell hopping. That’s what 4G wireless is designed to do.

    • Avatar dragoneast

      or as it’s into the 2020s the infrastructure for 5G along the route! It won’t happen, of course.

    • 4G and WiFi can easily form part of the same network, as some rail operators have shown when fixing precisely that problem.

    • Avatar TheManStan

      I was more thinking along the lines of when the commuters are stuck waiting because there is a dangerous leaf on the line…

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      Yes, but the WiFi bit is “in train” and the 4G stuff is about maintaining moving contact. In any event, lining a railtrack with WiFi with limited range isn’t going to fix many local access requirements. If fixed WiFi were the answer to domestic access, then we might have seen it all down urban streets. We don’t, for good reasons.

  3. Avatar gerarda

    For a fraction of the money about to be used counter-productively on HS2 we could have proper nationwide connectivity

  4. Avatar 3G Infinity

    2 comments

    a) you could do as in Korea, and put high speed wireless links up and down the track and deliver 4g on the trains

    b) you could use the fibre to deliver backhaul for BTS for 4G networks to rural areas, where currently fibre is non-extistant

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