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Scottish Borders Review Recommends Changes to Boost Broadband

Friday, November 30th, 2018 (9:28 am) - Score 2,187
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The Scottish Borders Council has published a review examining the impact of the £8.4m in public investment that went into improving the local reach of “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+). This finds that the Openreach (BT) roll-out “possibly” delivered value for money, but there were “major problems with the quality of the coverage.”

The local investment ultimately went toward supporting the Scottish Government’s wider £400m+ Digital Scotland (DSSB) project with BT (Openreach), which has so far reached an additional 900,000 premises via a mix of Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC / VDSL2) and a little Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology. But today’s review focuses solely on its impact in the Scottish Border region.

The Scottish Borders covers some 4,732 square kilometres and is predominantly rural in nature, with the largest town being Hawick. Out of a total population figure of 114,040, some 50,633 (44.4%) live in a rural or very rural location. As a result it would inevitably take a major engineering project to spread superfast broadband, which back in 2012 only covered around 39.3% of premises in the region.

At this point we note that the original coverage target for the area was vague and merely pledge to “provide access to Next Generation Access (NGA) to the greatest percentage possible beyond those premises which are delivered using the Scottish Ministers’ subsidy to achieve its objective of 75% NGA coverage in the Councils’ area” (i.e. the Council’s funding was only for use beyond the 75% objective and not to get coverage to that level).

At the Audit and Scrutiny Committee meeting on 5th November 2018, the DSSB team reported that coverage in the Scottish Borders had reached 93.7% (total homes passed), which is said to be “just short” of the 93.8% indicative target that had been highlighted in July 2013 when the Council signed the Minute of Agreement with the Scottish Government.

However, the figure of 93.7% only reflects raw coverage of the new fibre-based (mostly variable hybrid fibre FTTC services) network at any speed. The report noted that when the figures were filtered, such as to only look at premises able to access 24Mbps+ speeds, then the coverage drops to around 84%.

Review Extract

There have been major problems with the quality of the coverage. Many customers in towns and villages have an excellent service and have seen a real improvement in their broadband service when they have signed up for superfast broadband. However, other customers have faced massive problems in relation to the quality of service they have received, with many still unable to enjoy the benefits of superfast broadband, although they are technically ‘connected’ to the new network

On the subject of whether or not the project delivered “value for money“, the report says “possibly,” although it doesn’t elaborate much on any measure other than coverage (no economic impacts are considered in any detail). Clearly the coverage has improved significantly since 2012 and in that sense it “went well,” although we get the impression from this review that the council expected more.

There will be some very satisfied end customers in the Scottish Borders and some who continue to be dissatisfied. The whole process was a project on a heroic scale and it has probably made a step change in Superfast Broadband services – but it has also exposed that many more steps are needed,” said the report.

The report also touches on the issue of take-up. Originally, the supplier contract was based on a take-up rate target of 20% (like most Broadband Delivery UK contracts). The take-up of superfast broadband services is said to have been “reasonable” in the Scottish Borders, with the most recent figures showing 44.2% take-up (slightly behind the overall ‘Rest of Scotland’ figure of 46.2%).

The gainshare clause in related contracts requires BT to return part of the public investment as take-up rises beyond 20%, some of which is said to have already been used to achieve the current level of coverage. The council’s review appears to suggest that originally the gainshare was intended to go even further, although more may be returned for reinvestment in the future as take-up continues to rise.

Overall more than 130 new superfast broadband street cabinets and exchange upgrades have been delivered as part of the roll-out, connecting around 32,000 additional premises in the Scottish Borders. The review concludes by considering what changes could be made in order to help facilitate the future £600m Reaching 100% (R100) superfast broadband roll-out programme.

The R100 project raises the definition of “superfast” to 30Mbps+ and aims to achieve universal covered of that by the end of 2021 (here and here) or March 2022 as a financial year, although we have our doubts about whether that is achievable via fixed lines within the given time-scale (they might have to use some cheaper quick fixes, such as fixed wireless or inferior Satellite solutions).

Recommendation One
The Leader should write to the Scottish Government stressing the importance of the Scottish Borders getting a larger share of the ‘Gainshare’ uplift in Broadband connections, as this was supposed to add to the ‘coverage’ from the core funding. At present, ‘Gainshare’ connections are merely helping get coverage to the expected 93.8%.

Recommendation Two
To ensure transparency, there needs to be absolute clarity in any future programme of work on the definition of “coverage”, particularly as it applies in specific localities. It is not enough to identify national coverage percentages due to the wide variations within relatively small geographic areas. Coverage must be based on the actual service provided to the end user.

Recommendation Three
Within the fast changing world of technological advances, it is important that future-proofing is included within a contract and that a break is built into a contract to cover any major change in technology.

Recommendation Four
Progress in implementation must be communicated to all stakeholders at regular intervals during the contract period; with absolute clarity on any technical or logistical problems encountered or delays to previously advised timescales.

Recommendation Five
Rurality, geography, topography, and existing networks must be accounted for within the parameters of any new contract.

Recommendation Six
Simple, specific measurable outcomes must be built into any future contract to allow stakeholders to judge what success will look like.

Recommendation Seven
Any third party investors to a new contract must have deliverables specified and a clawback clause included – to cover situations where these deliverables fail and a new deliverable cannot be agreed by either party.

It took a bit of digging but we did eventually manage to find a copy of the review online, see below.

The Scottish Borders Review

Leave a Comment
7 Responses
  1. Avatar chris conder

    They were warned not to throw the money to bt for their inferior fttc product. They were told that it would only help the ones who had broadband to go a bit faster and wouldn’t help those on long lines. What a superfarce. It would be interesting to know how many actually got fttp and what they are paying.

    • But this comes back to the old catch-22. The money available, if spent purely on FTTP, would only have delivered a much smaller level of overall coverage and over a significantly longer timescale. So you would have effectively left a significant portion on old and much slower ADSL1 and ADSL2+ connections for many years longer.

      The VDSL2 (FTTC) approach, while not ultrafast, has still given the vast majority of those covered access to speeds that are several times faster than they had before. The fibre laid can in future also be used to help extend via FTTP.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      @CC – They were not warned, at least not by professionals in the industry.

    • Avatar Brian

      What I’ve found astounding in neighbouring D&G was the number of people involved in the project that didn’t even realise that long lines was a problem, so they went on to make false claims about the coverage. With those on long lines left with slow ADSL max connections, with no definite date for even a minor uplift with ADSL2

  2. Avatar Meadmodj

    FTTC was the cheapest and quickest way of increasing broadband speeds. Its all about money and Ofcom are only just getting round to a 10Mbps minimum but even that is capped.

    If there is any criticism I have it is that 93.7% are “covered” by Superfast but only 84% can actually achieve above 24Mbps. Now it may be that BT have had not been paid any subsidy for these lines but it is a failure in engineering terms as lines should not have been included if the objective could not be met. I doubt this is isolated to this project and what about those in commercial areas. Superfast Broadband is clearly defined by the UK and EU as 24Mbps yet ISPs are allowed to advertise their products as Superfast when for a significant percentage they are not. We must ensure we use correct figures when UK broadband access is stated.

    My view is its because Ofcom have allowed the Upto definition to continue instead of insisting on a From To.

  3. Avatar GNewton

    Maybe it’s time to figure out how this country managed to put in copper to almost every premise in the past. The amount of work it would take to cover this country is less than the original copper because the ducts and poles are already in place.

    Something has seriously gone wrong in this country, with its “Can’t do” culture, especially BT and OFCOM.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      There is some direct buried but in Urban and semi-rural you are right. The issue was the original commitment to Fibre and BT investment decisions. BT has been sweating the assets for years and unfortunately other than safety much as been neglected with silted bores, cabling insulation, crimp joints and poles not decayed but suspect. I think the underestimation is that in the early 70s Post Office Telephones employed over 250,000 people with the majority in the engineering work force.
      In the 80s it was recognised that Fibre would cost £15Bn (using the practices of the day) which would be £38Bn today.

      Whether it is £38Bn or whatever it is high and needs to be paid for either in subsidy or prices. I still do not understand why Ofcom continue to strangle OR revenues when we need more investment and the Government are drip feeding only a fraction of what is needed. The government have decided on the market but this appears hardly co-ordinated with most investment likely to result in overbuild.

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