Posts Tagged ‘BT’
Under pressure from the Public Accounts Committee to show value for money for the £1.7bn it is receiving for BDUK contracts, BT is fighting back.
Bill Broadband has just retweeted a Guido Fawkes tweet that it will “revisit” PAC chair Margaret Hodge’s tax affairs.
Bill Broadband is one of the names used by BT’s astroturf community to defend BT’s NGA roll-out and intimidate would-be competitors.
Hodge is away and unavailable for comment.
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.
There are still some people who are interested in seeing what’s happening to the near £2bn of taxpayers’ money given to BT to roll out next generation broadband in the “Final Third”. Many of them probably sit on the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, which is taking its third stab at finding if BT is delivering value for money this coming Wednesday.
The PAC, chaired by Margaret Hodge, was previously frustrated by the answers it received (here and here), and vowed to keep asking questions until it was satisfied. BT’s director of strategy, policy and portfolio, Sean Williams, who was the source of much of Ms Hodge’s frustration, gets a third act in front of the committee.
Supporting players are DCMS boss Sue Owen, BDUK CEO Chris Townsend and superfast broadband programme director Andrew Field, and Openreach MD for infrastructure delivery Kim Mears.
In its preamble the PAC said its reports on the rural broadband programme in September 2013 and April 2014 “raised concerns over lack of published information on BT’s plans for superfast broadband coverage, the availability and transparency of cost data and the level of competition secured throughout the programme. This recall session will examine the transparency of cost and rollout information and explore whether the department has done enough to promote greater competition for phases 2 and 3 of the programme.”
The curtain for the hour-long show goes up at 2.15pm on Wednesday 28 January 2015, Committee Room 15, Palace of Westminster. If you can’t make it in person you can follow on Parliament TV: Rural broadband: progress update session.
MPs have launched an inquiry into rural broadband speeds following on-going concerns that nearly £2bn of taxpayers’ money is unlikely to produce the expected results.
- the extent of broadband coverage in hardest to reach rural areas
- digital access and experience of digital─only programmes, such as the new CAP system applications
- support available for those required to use digital─only programmes
Written submissions should be submitted via the Rural broadband and digital─only services inquiry page on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website.
The deadline is Wednesday 19 November 2014.
Last week ministers claimed that the government’s £1.7bn budget has paid for superfast broadband to pass one million homes, so far.
This is 12% of the 8.8 million homes it is meant to serve with speeds above 24Mbps by 2017. As there appears to be no official source for the number of business premises, ministers are free to ad lib broadband availability to businesses.
There was no indication of what upload and download speeds users receive, and there are growing reports that services promised from some cabinets are now being deferred, perhaps indefinitely.
The money is all going to BT under the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme. It supplements the £2.5bn BT claims to have spent providing “superfast” service to the two-thirds of the population deemed “economically viable”, roughly the area covered by Virgin Media’s cable network.
A department of culture, media & sport spokesman said: “The £1.7bn is comprised of £1.2bn for phase 1 (£530m of BDUK funding plus local and European funding taking this up to £1.2bn) and £500m for phase 2 (£250m from BDUK to be matched by £250m further local and European funding).”
Based on the 2011 census, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says there were 26.4 million households in the UK in 2013. Of these, 29% consisted of only one person and 20% had four or more people.
According to the department of business, innovation & skills, there were 4,895,655 UK businesses in 2013. Nor BIS, nor the ONS, nor the department of communities and local government (DCLG), which counts the cash raised from business rates, has a number for the physical shops, offices and factories businesses occupy.
That did not stop the Federation of Small Businesses last month from reporting that the national broadband network is unfit for business use. “The current government targets of 24Mbps for 95 per cent of the population and 2Mbps for the remaining five per cent will not meet the future demands of UK businesses.” it said. This includes video conferencing, remote back-ups and cloud applications.
This was tacitly confirmed by HMRC, which now allows firms in “remote locations” to submit their VAT returns by paper instead of online. FSB national chairman John Allan said the move will benefit many small businesses. “However, it clearly highlights the need for the government to tackle the poor state of digital infrastructure in the UK. Too many firms are negatively impacted by sub-standard broadband. It is vital business owners spend more energy doing business and less doing paperwork.”
There are also widespread reports that BT has deliberately ignored central business districts and business parks in both its commercial and taxpayer-subsidised broadband roll-outs. As a result, DCMS set up a £150m SuperConnected Cities fund that will give small business a £3,000 grant to upgrade their broadband connections in up to 22 cities.
The scheme was “red-lighted” In a Cabinet Office report in May 2013. A year later these cities had issued 1,008 vouchers.
Fixed to wireless connectivity was 77:23 with Virgin Media leading the list of suppliers followed by Metronet UK. DCMS said 149 suppliers had registered; 90 had won business as a result.
BDUK’s quarterly broadband performance indicator for June said the £72.4m BDUK has spent so far guaranteed at least 24Mbps download speeds to 888,133 premises. That is £81.56 per premises passed.
Put another way, the government is covering 12,260 premises for every million pounds spent so far. Ministers say they expect a £20 return on every pound spent on this roll-out.
Bell Labs, which more or less invented the communications network business, has just given a new lease of life to copper network. In theory.
Its researchers have achieved speeds of 10Gbps over a pair of twisted copper lines in the lab. They have also got them to deliver 1Gbps symmetrical broadband, again in the lab.
That sounds like BT (in fact pretty much all incumbent telcos) is justified in pursuing its fully-depreciated investment in copper wires instead of switching to cheaper to operate fibre.
But the good engineers at Bell Labs also published a number of caveats.This is short distance technology. “The XG-FAST technology can deliver 1Gbps symmetrical services over 70m (for the cable being tested). This was achieved using a frequency range of 350MHz. Signals at higher frequencies were completely attenuated after 70m.”
So that’s it; 70m is the distance limit for gigabit copper.
But there’s more. “In practical situations, other significant factors that can influence actual speeds (not taken into account during these tests but which have been studied extensively elsewhere) include the quality and thickness of the copper cable and cross-talk between adjacent cables (which can be removed by vectoring),” they say.
They also published this handy guide for operators who are trying to match the exponentiating demand for bandwidth against their budgets for switching to fibre. It makes a trenchant leave-behind when you discuss the provision of high speed broadband with your local councillors and MPs as we approach the upcoming elections.
During testing, Bell Labs showed that
Maximum aggregate speed
|G.fast phase 1*||
|G.fast phase 2*||
|Bell Labs XG-FAST**||
2Gbps (1Gbps symmetrical)
|Bell Labs XG-FAST with bonding***||
10Gbps (two pairs)
* Industry standard specifications. G.fast allows for upload and download speeds to be configured by the operator.
** In a laboratory, reproducing real-world conditions of distance and copper quality.
*** Laboratory conditions.
Ofcom is obliged to not disclose the costing information that it gets from BT, which can be different from that which BT discloses in its regulatory financial statements. The Value Office Agency, which sets business rates taxes, does not disclose its financial model, or disaggregate BT’s products, so an important component of BT’s regulated prices is opaque.
Besides, BT sometimes changes the basis of its costs, as in “A6.47 BT has moved from an absolute valuation to a methodology based on indexing capital expenditure by RPI.”
This leave plenty to argue about. Sky and TalkTalk in particular are fighting a running battle with Ofcom over its assessment of the effect of business rates on BT’s prices for unbundled local loop lines (LLU). The debate forms part of Ofcom’s consultation on the fixed access market, which goes into excruciating detail, complete with triple negatives, on the business rates issue in Annexure 26.
The result of the debate is material to the two ISPs, which are the biggest exploiters of local loop unbundling. According to the Office of Telecommunications Adjudicator, by the end of May there were 9.3 million unbundled lines, and 5.68 million lines on Wholesale Line Rental (WLR).
The ISPs contend that BT receives a rebate on business rates due to LLU that amounts to an estimated cash value of £23/y per line. The rebate covers BT’s loss of profits due to the alienation of the full earning potential of the lines. The VOA and Ofcom consider those putative profits to arise mainly from “downstream” products from Openreach.
BT still makes money from renting out the lines, and besides any “lost profit” is at best a guess. Further, the business rates tax is a tax on assets, not profits. The ISPs believe whole of the rebate should be applied to the price BT charges for the line. Instead only 15p is. They say this leaves BT with net income from the rebate of more than £20/y/ULL. Put another way, this means the ISPs are paying around £180m/y in unjustified costs, which BT can then apply to subsidise downstream products.
They allege that Ofcom ignores this income from the rebate in assessing Openreach’s assets to price LLU. They allege that the resultant prices for LLU are higher than they should be, and that BT’s downstream products benefit from an illegal subsidy. They argue that since BT’s rebate is based on profits, not assets; if Ofcom disagrees, it should get the VOA to change the basis of its rating of BT, and not simply pass the extra costs on to the LLU operators.
Another issue that confuses matters is that Ofcom uses a theoretical all-copper network model for its sums. This disregards the thousands of kilometres of fibre BT has installed in the past five years. Fibre is cheaper to run than copper. TalkTalk’s plea for Ofcom to simply consider the outcomes produced in the market fell on deaf ears.
Ofcom has dismissed the ISPs’ objections, but it did go back to BT for more data about its costs. “We have also carried out a PWNRC (profit weighted net replacement cost) calculation using data on BT’s assets which are more detailed than those published in the RFS…In the light of this, we do not now consider that BT’s 2011/12 allocation of cumulo [business rates] costs to MPF and WLR services is reasonable.
“An allocation which is in line… would result in a reduction in the cumulo costs attributed to WLR rentals from £3.31 to between £2.80 and £2.98 in 2012/13 and a reduction in the cumulo costs attributed to MPF rentals from £3.16 to between £2.68 and £2.85 in 2012/13. We have reflected this reduced allocation in our charge controls,” Ofcom said in the annex.
Ofcom has now published the new LLU charge control decision. It comes into effect on 1 July.
Sky and TalkTalk did not respond to requests for comment.