BDUK to waste millions because of inaccurate broadband maps
UK taxpayers are likely to see hundreds of millions of pounds wasted duplicating high speed broadband services because local councils do not have official information about wireless broadband access in their area.
BDUK, the government agency charged with delivering the “best broadband in Europe” by 2015, has indicated in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that its maps do not reflect accurately the availability of high speed broadband in the UK.
Its maps, compiled from data collected from BT, Virgin Media, KCom and Ordnance Survey appear to reflect only fixed line access. Yet there are scores of small wireless network operators who already provide broadband access to thousands of customers. The availability of wireless broadband services may have been deliberately excluded from official records, as recent events in West Sussex showed.
In addition, procurement rules set up BDUK on the advice of consultants like Pinsent Mason and KMPG excluded operators with less than £20m/y turnover. This made all the UK’s wireless broadband operators and many mid-sized fixed network operators officially invisible.
The effect has been to distort the market in favour of large fixed wire network operators, even though ministers, officials and even suppliers have said constantly that a “mixed economy” ie combination of wired and wireless technologies, is needed to fulfil the government’s ambition.
BT has already said it will work with mobile operators to use LTE, the latest mobile telephony technology, and it is also working with satellite operator Avanti, to meet rural broadband needs in Cornwall. Arqiva has piloted LTE successfully in the Preseli Hills in Wales.
Kijoma Networks, which provides wireless broadband in Sussex, says its entry-level speed is 16Mbps, twice the national average broadband speed reported by Ofcom.
Kijoma CEO Bill Lewis said, “I have been challenging WSCC (West Sussex County Council) over their blatant pro-BT stance for years. In this county we have the added stitch up with the three non-ADSL exchanges. I am informed that they have gained permission from BDUK to spend some of the money to enable these exchanges for a ‘2Mbps service’.
“As the commercial incumbent in these areas for (about seven) years I am a bit miffed, obviously, as when we asked (WSCC) about funding our networks back in 2003-2004 they snubbed it.”
The department of culture, media and sport (DCMS), which is responsible for BDUK, did not answer a FOIA request that asked specifically if its maps included data on wireless access.
Instead it said it used a number of sources including Ordnance Survey geographic information such as Code Point; published BT FTTx exchange upgrade announcements; commercially confidential information from BT Openreach such as postcodes served by different cabinets; similar information from KCOM in and near Hull; and information from Virgin Media on cable coverage by postcode.
Asked how closely BDUK maps mirrored the Ofcom broadband maps, DCMS said the two exercises had not been co-ordinated, “but when they draw from similar sources they have similarities”.
“There is a significant difference in timing,” DCMS said. “The BDUK analysis is designed to look ahead while the Ofcom analysis looks at the current position. As an example, in Northern Ireland the superfast availability results were similar, but in Cornwall they were very different because at the time of the Ofcom map BT had announced major upgrades for Cornwall but had not carried them out.
“On current broadband speeds, the BDUK map seeks to model speeds capable of being received in an area while the Ofcom map uses average actual speeds; the latter will be lower for a number of reasons including customers choosing lower speeds than the maximum available.”
DCMS said the data is refreshed when there is “significant new information” and when BDUK has the resources to carry this out. It said the data was refreshed following the BT FTTx announcement in September 2011 and again following the BT FTTx announcement in December 2011, and took in “other data” which became available during those periods.
DCMS said BDUK has supplied extracts from these maps to local broadband partnerships and projects, and to the Scottish government. Local authorities who bid to be part of the £100m super-connected cities programme (see note) also received extracts. Requests from Br0kenTeleph0n3 to see the BDUK maps have been ignored.
DCMS said BDUK expected local partnerships to use the extracts to help planning and procurement of their next generation broadband projects. They would also act as “a baseline for consultation in determining the eligible project intervention areas in accordance with the EU State Aid approval process”.
Some wireless broadband operators have threatened to take legal action if local authorities ignore their presence in the market. This could hold up or deny hundreds of millions of pounds to operators like BT.
BDUK can veto a local authority’s NGA plan. Asked what other sources of information would be acceptable to BDUK, DCMS said BDUK expected local authorities to use other sources of local information. This was to validate and improve the accuracy of the data supplied by BDUK, and to supplement it.
This might happen if they “become aware of other local broadband suppliers’ footprints and future plans, when formally consulting on the intervention area in accordance with the EU State Aid approval process”.
“BDUK has not restricted the sources local authorities might use, but expects them to assess the quality of different sources before using them or providing data to bidders during procurement,” DCMS said.
The government has parcelled out £530m for NGA, with another £300m possibly available after 2015. The original intention was to ensure that the “Final Third” of the population, typically those living in rural areas, got access to high speed broadband, then taken to mean more than 2Mbps. Recent reports suggest that once this money is spent, 10% of the population, six million, will still be without such access.
Note: DCMS last week published the broadband access speeds available to towns with more than 100,000 dwellings.