Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category
The National Audit Office (NAO) report on the BDUK’s former Rural Broadband Programme, now renamed the Superfast Broadband Programme, contains elements that might lead to cognitive dissonance.
It reports that BDUK commissioned Atkins, a primary supplier of services to government, to look at BT’s costs to provide high speed broadband in rural areas. After looking at a few sites in Suffolk, Atkins concluded “BT had charged Suffolk nearly 20% less than would hypothetically be charged by another efficient supplier, in part reflecting that BT benefits from substantial national bulk buying power compared with other providers.” Paragraph 3.10)
That’s good news, right? But it seems there’s more joy to come for taxpayers. In Paragraph 5 NAO reports “BDUK’s experience of actual costs in phase 1 has led to BT agreeing to submit lower costs in its financial model for phase 2.”
However, it carefully notes that BT was picking low hanging fruit in Phase 1, namely peri-urban areas rather than deep rural ones where is cost to reach them is likely to be higher, unless you use a satellite.
NAO also suggests BT got other sums wrong. BrOkenTeleph0n3 revealed that BT’s planners estimated BT would break even on a 20% take-up in 12-14 years. “Take-up of superfast broadband so far has been significantly faster than forecast by BT in the phase 1 contracts. Take-up has risen to more than 20% already for two non framework projects”, the NAO found. This “should bring greater coverage than contracted, as local bodies will be able to extend their rollout with remaining funds,” it says.
BT is the only framework supplier left, and 43 out of 47 county councils have opted to use the framework to procure Phase 2, although 10 may elect to hold money back for Phase 3, the final 5%.
“Overall, the effect of the first 2 phases will be to reinforce BT’s already strong position in the wholesale market for broadband infrastructure (the Wholesale Local Access Market). BT’s assets and infrastructure will benefit from approximately £1.7 billion of public sector investment although BT must maintain these assets at its own expense. BT is also required by regulatory conditions to provide wholesale access to other suppliers.”
The NAO also revealed that the public will benefit from clawbacks due to higher than expected take-up for only seven years. “After these seven years, the supplier will keep all of the extra wholesale profit.”
BT amortises its fibre over five to 20 years, and its exchange equipment over three to 13 years.
BTW, in its 2013 rural broadband report on page 35, the NAO said “The Atkins ‘should cost’ model for Northamptonshire is three per cent higher than BT’s actual bid for the area. Atkins was not able to complete analysis of a second local body area, Suffolk, due to the difficulties it encountered in modelling a more complex technical solution. Atkins’ model is the only model available to us that has tried to match a corresponding BT bid identically.”
The hour-long Public Accounts Committee interview on the NAO report, featuring DCMS, BDUK and BT officials, took place on 28 January 2015. You can see the video here.
Second permanent secretary at the Treasury Sharon White will earn less than Ofcom CEO Ed Richardson when she replaces him in March 2015.
Richardson took home £393,204 in 2013/14 for doing the job, according to the Ofcom annual report (p64) for the period. His pay was made up from salary (£284,362), pension (£56,872), flexible benefits (£19,956), benefits in kind (£2,014), and performance bonus (£30,000). The previous year he took home £378,158.
White, a black woman, will earn a salary of £275,000, Ofcom said.
A career civil servant, White was appointed to her present job in October 2013. Tom Scholar, the man she replaced, earned a salary between £150,000 and £155,000 a year, according to an October 2013 Gov.net report.
A Cambridge economics graduate, White joined the civil service in 1989, starting with spells in Washington, the No 10 Policy Unit, and the World Bank. she later worked in the Department for International Development, the Department of Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury.
She is married to Robert Chote, chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility since 2010. They have two children.
White was appointed by the Ofcom Board, vetted by an independent assessor, and approved by the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Sajid Javid.
Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier is to hold a Broadband Roundtable at 10am on 31 July at Perseverance Works in Shoreditch, the heart of London’s TechCity district, to discuss the “embarrassing” availability of broadband in central business districts, never mind rural areas.
So far 422 suppliers have registered to service the government’s £150m Urban Broadband Fund, which funds the SuperConnected Cities scheme. Some 149 have have provided quotations, and 90 have won business, says DCMS.
By the end of May the cities had issued 1008 vouchers in 14 months. The fixed/wireless connectivity split was 77/23 per cent, and the average speed per connection went from 11.2Mbps to 70.3Mbps for downloads.
According to Hillier’s blurb, “Broadband is a national embarrassment and action is urgently needed. Government grants of £3,000 have been added in, but that is like a sticking plaster on a broken arm. Businesses are moving out of the area because they simply cannot access high speeds.”
The cities in the SCC programme are Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Derry/Londonderry, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Newport, Oxford, Perth, Portsmouth, Salford, and York.
DCMS says it will provide a city by city breakdown “this summer”, but declines to say how much money has been paid out so far or to whom. However, Virgin Media tops a DCMS table of suppliers to whom vouchers have been issued (see below).
BT, which Ofcom says has an effective monopoly on wholesale fixed line access despite Virgin Media’s efforts, declines to say how many vouchers it has won. Its Openreach division is likely to be a big winner anyway. This is because smaller operators like Hyperoptic and TalkTalk rent ducts and lines from Openreach, even as BT’s Business division competes with them at a retail level.
So does 1,008 vouchers issued in 14 months represent success or failure? To be fair, it’s probably too soon to tell, but there’s not much time left – DCMS says the money dries up in March 2015.
It’s appropriate that Perseverance Works (PW) is the venue. Helped by former BDUK consultant Mike Kiely, the firm has just contracted Fibre Options to supply a 16Gbps link into the premises which houses around 90 businesses.
As landlord, PW will own the network. Each tenant will be able to use the government vouchers to order a connection running at up to 1Gbps. Fibre Options will do the provisioning and billing.
It took more than a year to negotiate the deal because the usual suspects were not prepared to consider an aggregated customer base – they wanted to sell a long-term leased line service that most tenants neither wanted nor could afford. PW eventually went to tender, which Fibre Options won.
PW spokesman Paul King says he sees “no reason” why PW’s approach should not be replicated by business parks across the country. Members of INCA are currently targeting business parks, most of which have been neglected in BT’s NGA roll-out.
The details again: 10:00-11:00, Thursday 31 July, 2014 at Eastside Educational Trust, Suite 16, Perseverance Works, 37 Hackney Road, E2 7NX. To book a place call Meg Hiller’s office at 0207 219 5325.
ISPs cash in on voucher scheme
|1||Virgin Media Business|
|5||Unitel One Source Ltd|
|9||Venus Business Communications|
|13||Unique Network Solutions|
|14||Qubic Group Plc|
A decision by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) to not release the test methodology and raw test data for the £425m Superfast Cymru broadband project has been referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The complaint stems from a claim by a junior minister that the project had led to more than 100,000 premises being connected at an “average speed of 61Mbps”. It is part of long-running scepticism that the contract will deliver what the WAG has claimed it will, and now subject to audit.
The claim, by deputy minister for skills & technology Ken Skates, was challenged by broadband consultant Richard Brown. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Brown asked the WAG to supply the methodology and the raw test data on which Skates based the claim.
The WAG refused, saying the information would be published at a later date. Brown asked for a review of the WAG’s decision.
Rob Hunter, director of finance and performance in the department of economy science and transport, again refused Brown’s request. He referred to the earlier reason for non-disclosure and added that the information, together with an explanatory narrative, will be published, “probably in summer”, together with a ministerial announcement.
“I am of the opinion that publicly releasing the raw material at this time, without the explanatory narrative and accompanying explanatory ministerial announcement, would cause disruption to the Welsh government’s pre-set programme and the ministerial process in relation to this work in that the raw information, if released prematurely, may be misconstrued and re-published by some, or extracts of the information re-published, in such an ambiguous way as to cause confusion amongst the public and cause disruption to the effective conduct of public affairs.
“To that end, I do not think it is reasonable in all the circumstances or in the public interest to release this information prematurely. Rather, I believe the public interest would be best served if the information were released alongside the ministerial announcement and consultation participation report so that the public can review the information in context. I am satisfied therefore that the balance of the public interest falls in favour of withholding the information.”
In his complaint to the ICO, Brown said, “It does not serve the public interest that a junior minister can make claims in a press release (that is subsequently printed in the press), [but] that the information for testing those claims is withheld until a later date.
“I have been separately informed that the test data is not formed in the manner that has been described, in so much as that the 100,000 connections are not live connections (as described by the junior minister in his release), but are (in the majority) simply theoretical tests that have taken place to establish the possibility of these connections and their speeds.
“Such theoretical connections belies the claim made by the junior minister that the connections are ‘live’ with an average speed of 61Mbps. As such the public interest is in fact damaged due to the claim likely being both false and misleading. The determination to publish the data at a later date, simply moves the ‘proof’ to a later date in an effort to minimise its relevance in informing the public interest.”
Brown noted that WAG had waited until the last possible day to reply to him. “I am of the opinion that this is contrary to the spirit of the act, and is contrary to the commissioner’s guidance, and furthermore is a deliberate attempt to prevent access to information that would be appropriate to informing the public interest.”
In support of his complaint Brown claimed that Hunter’s statement that premature publication could confuse the public was “simply without merit”.
He said, “If this were indeed the case, then a programmed press release by the junior minister would not be possible for precisely the reasons given for not substantiating the claim made by the same junior minister. Further, had the junior minister not made such a wildly unsubstantiated claim in the press, the public interest would not need ‘early’ access to the data to test the claim made.”
Brown believes that Skates’ claims cannot be upheld using the withheld data. The denial on the grounds of future publishing and the unnecessary use of the total time allowance for responses were an attempt “to obfuscate the correct and appropriate informing of the public interest” rather than trying to preserve such public interest as Hunter claimed.
“The commissioner will be aware that such actions are contrary to the act and the deliberate attempt to prevent the legitimate release of information that informs the public interest remains an offence under the act,” Brown said.
Maps showing that the Welsh Assembly Government’s (WAG) publicly-funded Superfast Cymru project supplied by BT will overbuild an existing publicly-funded network have led to questions about the legality of the £425m next generation broadband project.
Using post code data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act with the help of the Information Commissioner’s Office, broadband consultant Richard Brown has identified post codes included in the Superfast Cymru roll-out that are already covered by the £30m Fibrespeed network. He has asked the European Commission to investigate whether there has been a breach of the regulations.
BrokenTelephone reported in November last year that the WAG was seeking ways to overbuild Fibrespeed. At the time business, science and transport minister Edwina Hart said a change in the guidelines governing state aid for broadband might allow the overbuild, and promised to report back to WAG members.
Fibrespeed is owned by the WAG but supplied and operated under a 15 year contract by independent dark fibre network operator Geo (sold last week to US-based Zayo). It was to service 14 business parks in north Wales with an optical fibre trunk network at prices equivalent to London and the UK South-East, according to assembly member Lesley Griffiths, speaking in 2008. Local ISPs tapped spare capacity in the network to provide local residents with wireless connections starting from 2Mbps, providing a service BT could not match.
Brown asked Hart a year ago if Superfast Cymru would overbuild Fibrespeed. “At that time I received a statement from the business minister that she was satisfied that there was no overbuild, and the EU Commission received a similar reassurance that there was no overbuild and so chose not to pursue the matter any further,” he wrote to the commission.
On receiving the post code data for Superfast Cymru coverage areas, he tested them against those covered by Fibrespeed (see table).
“The original statement issued to me by the business minister, and subsequently affirmed by the EU Commission, was that the Fibrespeed project was specifically targeted at business parks in the north of Wales and, whilst resellers of the Fibrespeed capacity may have extended this network using alternative connection methods (wireless appears to be prevalent), no business park was to be covered by Superfast Cymru, and so no overbuild of the original public funded project would take place,” he said.
“LL17 OLJ is St Asaph Business Park. It is where Fibrespeed have their principal office of operations.”
Brown said, “It is clear that a deliberate attempt appears to have been made to misrepresent both the Fibrespeed and Superfast Cymru projects to the EU Commission for the purposes of securing additional (duplicated in part) public funding.
“Whilst the declared outcome sought (increased access of citizens to superfast broadband speeds) is of course laudable, the Superfast Cymru project itself is under scrutiny as to whether it can indeed deliver on this.”
|Postcode||Served by Fibrespeed||Served by Superfast Cymru|
|LL77 7UR||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|LL65 4RW||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|LL12 0PG||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|LL13 9XT||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|CH5 2NR||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|CH7 6HB||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|LL57 4YH||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
|LL17 0LJ||Yes (case study)||Yes – released postcodes*|
*released postcodes refer to a document which is the 54k (approx) postcodes that the Information Commissioner compelled the Welsh Government department to release to Brown that detail the target intervention areas of the Superfast Cymru project.
Nice to see that Broadway Partners’ affiliate company Cotswolds Broadband has received funding commitments for £1.6m from West Oxfordshire District Council to make superfast broadband available to every home and business in the hardest to reach areas of West Oxfordshire, some 4,000 premises.
BT’s £25m county-wide project with the Oxfordshire County Council would have left 2,000 premises without access to high speed services. The new deal will address that shortfall.
The district council will supply a loan, BDUK is expected to chip in a grant, and private investors will match the funds so raised. Broadway Partners’ Adrian Wooster, late of BDUK, says this is the first time a a public private partnership has been set up for a UK rural broadband project.
The network will be mainly fibre to the premises (FTTP). It will offer open access to attract multiple ISPs and a richer choice of service offerings, and could backhaul 4G mobile in the area.
It’s an interesting approach, and one contrary to BT’s. BT’s approach has been to optimise the delivery of next generation broadband to rural area for its shareholders. Cotswold Broadband (and B4RN and all the other FTTP projects) are about optimising for the users.
According to a TED talk that I can no longer find, the maths insists that the optimal solution to a problem like delivering superfast broadband to rural areas optimises for one or the many. You can’t do both
So, as BT is beholden to its shareholders, it’s rational for it to do the least it can for the money it is given. In practical terms, that means making minimal investment in its network for as long as possible and persuading everyone that this is as good as it gets for the money, and besides they don’t need more.
In optimising for users Cotswold Broadband has to use a variety of technologies to connect the 4,000-odd premises to be cost-effective.
Assuming BDUK chips in £400k and the investors match the public sector money with their own £2m, what can Cotswold Broadband buy for £1000/premises? It’s already said most will get FTTP; if it can persuade a cellco or two, 4G mobile broadband is possibility. It could also consider microwave in E-band, Carrier Wi-Fi or and upcoming free to air WiGig wireless access, which is all becoming cheaper, and is more flexible to apply than fixed lines like copper and fibre. Over time it could use spare cash from wireless customers to extend the fibre where there is a demand.
Of course, these technology options are also available to BT, but the fact that Cotswold’s deal exists suggests BT has had no interest in supplying the area, presumably because of cost. Besides, using the new tech would involve it getting into new technologies. Going through the learning curve would sub-optimise its return on capital employed, so logically it won’t. The best it can do, logically, is to become an ISP on the Cotswold Broadband network.
Having behaved rationally so far, let’s see if BT’s common sense will prevail.
He has postponed a study of public sector broadband aggregation (PSBA) in favour of the value for money review, which is due out by the end of the year.
The study will try to answer three questions:
- Does the Welsh government have a coherent strategy for investing in high speed broadband infrastructure in Wales?
- Does the Welsh government have robust contractual arrangements for Superfast Cymru?
- Are the Welsh government’s high speed broadband programmes likely to achieve the intended benefits?
In scope is the effectiveness of the government’s strategy and targets; the programme’s financial planning and governance; the contractual arrangements with BT; the procurement processes, risk management arrangements, and the monitoring and evaluation of the contract.
Not in scope is the propriety of having BT staff represent the Welsh government’s fund-raising effort in Europe, says Rachel Moss, head of communications at the Auditor General’s office.
The question of a possible conflict of interest in having Ann Beynon, BT director of Wales, sit on the European Programmes Partnership Forum in the Welsh European Funding Office was questioned in March 2013. £90m of the money for Superfast Cymru comes from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF.)
At the time the Audit Office said, “We need to establish the risks arising from any real or perceived conflicts of interest, how they have been managed and the extent to which appropriate declarations of interest have been made.”
The value for money review follows the National Audit Office’s scathing review of the UK government’s next generation broadband programme overseen by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). The NAO said there was no clear way to assess whether taxpayers would see value for money, and the £1.2bn they were giving BT would strengthen BT’s monopoly.
The review also follows a damning critique of the Superfast Cymru contract with BT by broadband consultant Richard Brown. “BT will deliver exactly what it contracted for, which is 95% of homes passed,” he said.
BT’s local network subsidiary Openreach is expected to lay 17,500km optical fibre and install around 3,000 new fibre broadband cabinets in parts of the country not covered by BT’s commercial plans. The government hopes to cover 96 per cent of the population.
Asked why the study is being done now, despite criticism of the project and its process before the contract was awarded, Moss said, “It would have been premature to carry out a review of this nature before the contract was signed – this would be straying into policy decisions which are not matters for the Auditor General, and limited evidence would have been available on the likelihood of the project delivering its intended benefits. The current timing of the study allows for a broader examination of the likely impact of the Welsh Government’s investment in broadband infrastructure.
Part of the report will compare the Welsh project with that of England. “The NAO’s work in England and that of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is certainly helpful in enabling us to compare the situation in England with Wales and this will be reflected in the final report,” Moss said.
The PAC has said it will recall BT a second time because it is unhappy with BT’s answers to its questions at two earlier hearings to discuss the NAO’s findings.
The Welsh Auditor General will survey around 1000 businesses and households in Blaenau Gwent and Gwynedd, the two areas where there has been “significant progress”, to see what difference access to BT’s Infinity product is making.
The general public can also recount their experiences of the Superfast Cymru programme by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The auditors will not able to take up any complaints about BT or other broadband service providers and may not be able to reply to individual correspondence, the Auditor General’s office warned.
Note: Brown has submitted a Freedom of Information request for the test data and methodology that led the Welsh deputy minister for skills and technology Ken Skates to associate himself with press claims that over 100,000 premises are now able to access fast fibre broadband as a result of Superfast Cymru.
“The houses have been tested and verified as being able to receive superfast speeds. The average download speed of 61 Mbps is also more than double the contractual minimum for the programme,” the News Wales web site said.
It then went on to quote Skates as saying, “The fact that where premises are already benefiting as a result of the programme, with an average speed three times the UK average, shows the positive impact it is having as roll-out continues.”