Archive for February 2014
BrokenTelephone doesn’t normally publicise paid-for events, but we’re making an exception in this case. We have long argued that the UK has ignored alternatives to the gap-funded model beloved by BT to finance investment in broadband networks. At last someone has heard us and is taking he message seriously.
Adrian Wooster, late of BDUK and now with Broadway Partners, is putting together an event for 12 March to look at the non-engineering aspects of getting next generation broadband into the Final 10% – funding, investment, business models, social inclusion, and the dreaded state aid. It is aimed at the public sector, financiers and communities.
The timing is perfect because DCMS has just announced how the £250m of the £300m promised years ago will be divvied up: England £184.34m; Wales £12.1m; Scotland £20.99m and Northern Ireland £7.24m.
The official reply to BrokenTelephone’s questions about the terms and conditions tied to the allocation was, “Procurement will be a local decision – we’re not dictating who the supplier should be. Where contracts are already in place with BT, local bodies can decide to extend them (within contractual limits); or to undertake a new procurement either using the national framework or not.”
Reading between the lines, there is a desire for local authorities not to simply give it all to BT but to conduct genuine fresh procurements in an attempt to get better value for taxpayers. INCA has shown that LAs can likely get better value for their taxpayers’ money if they go with altnets rather than BT. INCA executive director Malcolm Corbett is on record saying that procurements that pick BT find they contribute up to 90% of funds to what is meant to be a match-funded process; altnet solutions could come in at 30%, thanks to the willingness of private investors.
BT is already trying to “white ant” altnet coverage areas, making it difficult for altnets to provide coverage without overbuilding BT’s subsidised coverage areas. It is also spending £50m to fill in city not-spots and hook up multi-tenanted buildings to stop Hyperoptic and CityFibre from having a free run. BT claims that serving 150-home villages like Lancashire’s Dolphinholme is commercially viable. That might be true, but only because BT is running a fibre to a nearby radio mast; Arqiva or a mobile network operator is picking up most of the capital cost, and the village (or rather homes along the road) is covered en passant at marginal cost.
The other big win for LAs is that many would-be altnets offer fibre to the home; BT’s fibre stops at the street cabinet. So even if the altnet fails, the fibre is in the ground; LAs could get BT or another big operator to take it over at a fraction of the cost than if they picked BT at the start.
Wooster says the event will present funding options that don’t depend on gap-funded grants. “The UK is largely alone in gap-funding. There are very good, tested models that we should be learning from. These have a bigger economic impact and are better value for the stakeholders including, not least, the public sector,” he says.
Wooster says delegates will learn to how create more options and choices for broadband delivery; how to maximise their SEP allocation; how to love state aid; how to get new funding streams without spending a penny; how to de-risk their projects; how others abroad have done/are doing it; and how to make your area a contender for ‘Best Broadband in Britain’.
The event will be at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, so reasonably central. Fees are £99 each for civil servants, and £50 each for communities. Book via https://broadwayworkshop1.eventbrite.co.uk.
The price for communities has dropped to £25, and Wooster says, “We will listen to cries of poverty.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that BT is prioritising rural areas where it faces competition for its initial taxpayer-funded roll-out of next generation broadband.
The latest example comes from West Sussex, where BT has already upgraded the coastal belt in its commercial roll-out, and is now moving inland.
The official West Sussex County Council interactive map (which is not up to date in terms of its colour-coding; it still says the coast is “under evaluation”) does not reflect any choice of suppliers of high speed broadband.
However, BrokenTelephone has made a more up to date map which shows roughly how BT’s taxpayer-funded coverage maps onto the coverage provided by wireless internet service provider Kijoma (outlined in black).
Interestingly, the WSCC says that two of the exchange areas shown as pink are “partly in the commercial roll-out”.
“These are Billingshurst and Bosham. The rest are outside of the commercial roll-out and therefore in the area eligible for funding by the project.”
When the BDUK procurement framework was first mentioned, wireless was excluded as not being capable of meeting EU targets of 30Mbps for all, and 50% of the population on 100Mbps service. The European Commission later relaxed its stance on wireless, but BDUK and local councils appear to ignore the change in contracting for next generation broadband networks.
We have asked WSCC for clarification as to precisely which areas in Billinghurst and Bosham (bottom left of map, just south of Kijoma coverage) are in the commercial roll-out, and what the time-frame is for the roll-out to the non-commercial parts are. We’ll update this story if we get a reply.
This is not the first sign that BT is being allowed to use public money to overbuild privately-run networks. The most egregious so far is BT’s roll-out of a fibre through the
Lancashire village of Dolphinholme, where residents have spent time, money and effort digging towards the B4RN network to ensure that their village doesn’t miss out.
While BT’s Dolphinholme roll-out looks good in terms of “homes passed”, the actual availability of a fibre connection to those homes not on the road appears slight. The more likely reason for the fibre link is that the road through Dolphinholme leads to a radio mast, and the fibre is there to backhaul mobile radio traffic, not to carry residential broadband traffic. But its presence is a threat to B4RN, which, try as it might, is unlikely to persuade mobile network operators to use its fibre, at least in the short term.
Tunstall, another Lancashire village in the B4RN coverage area in BT’s sights, is on the road to Kirkby Lonsdale and there is already fibre in that road. BT is also targetting Whittington, which is the hamlet after Arkholme and Docker on the way up to Kirkby on the opposite side of the Lune valley to Tunstall.
Two weeks ago Gigaclear scrapped plans to roll out a 1Gbps-capable FTTP network in the Dun Valley, Wiltshire, after the Wiltshire County Council said it would apply BDUK money to BT’s “up to 80Mbps” FTTC roll-out in the area. This followed months of discussions between residents, Gigaclear and the council as to their roll-out plans for the valley.
The department of culture, media and sport (DCMS), home to communications ministry and Broadband Delivery UK, has given Belfast city council £13.7m from its Superconnected Cities fund. This fund is designed to provide small and medium enterprises with a “step-change” in the speed of the broadband they use to connect to the internet.
SMEs can apply for a voucher to the value of £3,000 towards the cost of installing faster internet connections.
The city council added another £3m to bring the total to £16.7m.
Why then does the city say “Over £9 million is going towards the voucher scheme…”? Why not all the money? What will the remaining £7m go on?
Could this provide a clue? “By 2015, the council aims to have improved wireless and wi-fi access across the city, via metro wireless in the city centre and wi-fi hotspots in more public buildings.”
Taxpayers have so far chipped in nearly £24m of the £56m spent so far to get next generation broadband into Northern Ireland, only for Ofcom to report NI still lags the rest of the country in take-up.
Belfast City Council replied: “The remaining portion of the investment package will provide a metro wireless concession to allow in-fill of the 3G/4G service and an outdoor Wi-Fi for Belfast, as well as the provision of free to the public Wi-Fi in public buildings across the city. The tender process for the Metro Wireless already has been advertised: http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/business/investinginbelfast/superconnected-belfast/superconnected-metrowireless.aspx. BCC is still in negotiations with other public bodies which will allow us to design the free Wi-Fi in public buildings scheme; details of this will be published in the coming months, depending on the progress we make in our negotiations.”
Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Executive said on 7 February it would sponsor a further £23.5m investment with BT to fill in some broadband not spots and cover 45,000 more homes at an average cost of £522/home.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is contributing £9.9m; the European Regional Development Fund’s (ERDF) £5m; BDUK £4.4million, and BT £4.2m to the project, which puts state aid intensity at 82%.
This brings the total spent on next generation broadband in Ireland with BT to £93.6m. The 2011 census found 703,300 households in Northern Ireland, which makes the average cost per home passed so far £133.
In July 2011 we were told the NI roll-out was “complete”. Further down in the story BT said “at least 89%” of phone lines would be connected to a fibre-enabled cabinet. The present investment will take that to 95%.
Devon residents were refused a vote on which next generation broadband plan they prefer – their own or BT’s – at a public meeting hosted by the leader of the county council.
Local newspaper the Kingsbridge and Salcombe Gazette reports that residents who attended a public meeting on 22 January heard details of a fibre to the home (FTTP) project by would-be community network operator South Hams Broadband and a fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) alternative by BT and the county council-run Connecting Devon & Somerset.
The paper reported that Bill Murphy, MD for BT’s Next Generation Access roll-out, told the meeting they “had an important choice to make”.
County council leader John Hart, who hosted the meeting, refused to allow a vote on the two proposals.
Chris White, who spoke for the South Hams Broadband project, which plans to run fibre to all the premises in three coastal parishes west of Dartmouth, was reported saying it was now “unclear” how residents would be able to make this choice.
“Perhaps a vote could have been taken then and there to give Councillor Hart a flavour of what the audience had made of the two options presented. Unfortunately, he was having none of it, and refused to have a vote of any sort.”
White went on to say, “Although the mood of the meeting was in fact unmistakeable, it became clear that (Hart) and his select committee would make the decision on ‘commercial’ grounds, based on a written report from the CD&S broadband team that would remain confidential as it would contain ‘commercially sensitive information’.”
Shortly before Christmas BrokenTelephone reported that Lancashire’s B4RN and Devon’s Thurlestone (aka South Hams) community-based next generation broadband projects had passed the BDUK hurdles to qualify for money from the £20m Rural Broadband Development Fund. The next step is have their county council exclude their planned coverage areas from BT’s taxpayer-subsidised fibre to the cabinet roll-outs.
As reported here earlier, BT has an effective veto over such exclusions.
A 2012 analysis of the South Hams project by rural broadband consultant Adrian Wooster (whose subsequent contract with BDUK has just finished) revealed the area has 4,610 homes. Seventy per cent are main residences and 260 are social housing properties; a quarter are second homes or holiday lets. South Hams now plans to cover about a quarter of the original area.
Wooster reported the average predicted speed in the project area was just 3.1Mbps, (at the time half the national average), with ADSL2+, VDSL and Docsis services all unavailable.
There were 13 BT telephone exchanges. None was “unregulated”, and only in Kingsbridge did BT have competition in the form of TalkTalk.
“The existence of additional operators in a telephone exchange can be a useful indicator of the markets general interest in the area, and the existence of backbone connectivity; some operators offer wholesale access to their core networks as well as retail services,” Wooster wrote.
“That only Kingsbridge has additional operators is perhaps an indicator that the whole of the South Hams area is not considered attractive to broadband operators and that backhaul connectivity may be scarce and expensive.
“Should the community decide to progress a FTTP project in the Thurlestone area, the budget is likely to be in the realm of £3-5m.”
White said the South Hams plan is to make a 100Mbps symmetric service available to all premises in the parishes of Thurleston, South Milton and South Huish. He expects to issue a tender in March, select a supplier in June, and start work in July, provided the county agrees to “descope” the three parishes.
Richard Brown, who last week gave a presentation on “superfast broadband in Wales” to the Mid-Wales branch of the British Computer Society, was invited to provide a report-back on the meeting. He writes:
A little while ago, one of the Chartered Institute of IT (BCS) members got in touch, after he had spotted some of my comments in your blog. He got in touch to ask whether I would consider doing a presentation to members, about broadband in the UK and more particularly expand on the area of superfast broadband and public funding to deliver it.
Obviously I was pleased to be invited, but talking for around an hour about any subject is rarely easy – particularly when the audience is likely to be far more knowledgeable about how the tech works than I could hope to be. The thing is – they (the institute) didn’t want to increase their knowledge about the tech – they wanted to understand why the relatively large sums of money didn’t seem to be making any difference to the outcome.Wales is still wholly underserved for broadband, and mobile communications.
I took the BSG report as my inspiration for two reasons:
- I think that the assertion that the median requirement for broadband in 2023 at 19Mbps is more a self serving announcement for the members of Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG) than a true reflection of the likely growth and potential for fast communications
- 19Mbps as a median suggest many need much less, but the report clearly states that only 1% would require 35Mbps-49Mbps in the same year
BDUK was originally set up to fund the ‘gap’ between the commercial rollout of the major ISPs (primarily BT) and those that would appear to never be able to receive superfast (24Mbps+) broadband.
I think that BDUK is failing, and BSG being a primary lobbyist to Westminster is part of the problem.
At the point that it became clear that my presentation had attracted the attention of (Public Accounts Committee chairman) Margaret Hodges’ office, (BT’s NGA MD) Bill Murphy’s interest was predictably high. He seemed overly desperate to make sure that I ‘told’ Margaret Hodges that 100k premises in Wales could now benefit from superfast broadband because of the BT/Welsh ministers’ contract.
I’ve made my opinion of that quite clear in the presentation – and trust that both Bill and Margaret have been able to hear me clearly state the same.
1250 views of the presentation have accumulated since I added audio (BCS tech failed to record the presentation on the night), which is around the same number of views that the 25 most recent presentation BCS have on their YouTube feed have accumulated in total. I think this demonstrates how important this issue is, and just how serious a sage institution such as the Chartered Institute of IT take this issue.
There were live examples of properties that had been passed by and are included in the premises passed figures (probably as bad a measure as Up To for broadband download speeds), and utter confusion (and a little irritation) that the Welsh ministers refused to be open about what the contract they have signed is likely to deliver.
The focus on the Welsh government failing to deliver on public promises was to be expected, as most of the attendees are Welsh residents – but, I did make an effort to point out that Wales is not unique in it’s failings.
I have been asked outright if I would consider setting up a public broadband interest group, along similar a vein to the NRA for gun users in the US. I am not sure that the two are necessarily analogous in anything other than the potential threat to a group of the public who have no collective voice.
I am not even sure how I would go about funding something like that. I am seriously considering it though – we desperately need a counter lobby to BSG, which is not serving the public well.
Do I think the future of broadband communications in the UK is bright? Not particularly – that is why I think that it might be time to bring the public together with a single voice.