Opinion: Plugging the gaps in the government's broadband strategy

Opinion

Opinion: Plugging the gaps in the government's broadband strategy

The government has outlined its vision for Britain's superfast broadband service. Chris Conder, who has first-hand experience of community networks, has taken an in-depth look and here offers her opinion of what's missing.

"Britain's Superfast Broadband Future", published today by Secretary of State for Olympics, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, sets out an action plan to stimulate private investment and competition, and create an environment in which business can flourish, by removing key barriers around hardware and cutting costs.

A reliable and secure superfast broadband network is vital to the country's economic growth, the development of high-tech and creative industries, and the reform of public services.

Hunt said, "An ambition to deliver a 'digital hub' in every community in the country is at the heart of the government's £830m strategy to make sure the UK has the best broadband network in Europe by 2015. A digital parish pump, supplied by community-owned fibre, funded by government is the single most sensible solution to this issue. It is also the most cost-effective solution."

The key points of the government proposals are shown below with my responses:

A 'digital hub' in every community by the end of this parliament.

This will comprise of an open access structure owned by the community. It will be fed with community fibre and join the internet at local peering points. At no point will it touch the Openreach infrastructure where throttling and contention ridicule the concept of next-generation access (NGA). Every engineer I have spoken to who works for Openreach has confirmed that there simply is not the capacity on their network to serve NGA over the middle mile.

Investing £50m in a second wave of projects to test how to deliver the strategy on top of the four pilots currently running on how to deliver superfast broadband to remote and rural areas.

There is no need to invest in more projects. We have the plan. Lay fibre from our own peering points. Terminate in digital parish pumps. Remove the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) tax for five years. Authorise the "big society" banks to enable communities to borrow money at low rates. Compulsorily purchase any infrastructure belonging to the incumbent which they won't deliver NGA on. They aren't even delivering ADSL in many locations so NGA won't happen on them either. Use it or lose it.

Cutting the costs of and access to infrastructure – increasing shared access, working with house builders to make new homes broadband-ready, and cutting the costs of laying cable by clarifying the rules on streetworks.

I think house builders should just lay a big drainpipe so access is available and be done with it. Reading the complicated list of stuff provided by government is going to add to the cost and builders won't like it. Keep it simple.

Awarding spectrum for mobile services.

This is a no-brainer. Any spectrum must be made available, but even spectrum isn't a lot of use in rural areas because there aren't any masts, and the ones there are are generally fed by microwave. Any fibre going to rural areas must supply new masts too, and these should be community owned, creating income for the local network or providing very low cost services.

A superfast network will be the foundation for a new economic dynamism, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and adding billions to GDP. But it is not just about the economy; around the world there are countless examples of superfast broadband helping to build a fairer and more prosperous society, and to transform the relationship between government and citizens. And shifting government services online will save billions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

Simply because it is going to save the government millions is the reason why government has to pay now and remove the legislative barriers to get fibre out to rural areas, otherwise a large tranche of the population will not engage.

The UK will have the best broadband system in Europe by 2015. Government strategy, backed by an £830m investment, will help deliver that by stimulating private investment and competition.

If you are serious about stimulating private investment then you have to have a level playing field.

Hunt said, "BT's fantastic range of measures could, on top of the £830m investment, bring superfast broadband to around 90 per cent of the population. BT has said it will contribute further funding to supplement any of the public money the company may win when we hold tenders for rolling out rural broadband. It is a great example of public funding and initiative stimulating private sector investment."

BT's version of superfast is, according to its director of strategy Liv Garfield, fibre to the cabinet, copper to the home (FTTC) – this is not next-generation access, it is a way of protecting the copper cabal. It is not acceptable that public money should be used to do this. BT also announced last week that it is extending the reach of the cabinets and providing a 5Mbps service from them. Garfield also confirmed that any area getting FTTC will not be upgraded to FTTH [fibre to the home]. She insisted that this service is futureproof. This proves how powerful the copper lobby is if a leading spokesperson can believe such misinformation.

The UK is already in a relatively strong position, with one of the most competitive broadband markets in the world. More than 70% of households subscribe to broadband and nearly 50% of all homes have access to a superfast 50Mbps service.

Hunt omits to mention the final third, where millions are on sub -2Mbps feeds and many are still on dial-up. The UK is lucky in that it has such a fantastic phone network, due mainly to government investment over the years. The incumbent has milked this system for many years. Privatisation didn't help the case, bringing in greedy shareholders and fat cat bosses to bump up their dividends. Thousands of workers were laid off last year at a time when investment in the infrastructure should have been happening. BT thinks that if we want to get ahead in the digital revolution that we need it. We don't. When BT goes bust we can employ all its people and build the network properly.

Hunt said, "The market continues to make great strides in extending and improving the country's broadband network and existing provision is largely due to market investment, with Virgin Media and BT investing rapidly in new networks. Smaller providers such as Rutland Telecom, Geo and Vtesse and community groups are finding innovative ways of delivering superfast broadband to areas where it is economically challenging to do so."

A small community in Lincolnshire has also laid and lit fibre to the home. They are all now on a gigabit locally and 100Mbps to the internet. If a small village can do it then so can others. All they need is an affordable, accessible digital village pump. No public money has been used in this community. They just happened to be handy to a pipe, and determination and desperation and help from a private company and a smart MP beat BT down.

Hunt said, "Market solutions will continue to drive forward the UK broadband network, but for those communities that cannot access a good level of connectivity, public investment will be used to support local authority broadband development plans."

Market solutions will not continue to drive the UK broadband network forward unless there is a level playing field. It is in the government's interests to level it out. This can be done at no cost. It can be done quickly. Read this document from a private company, which has invested millions and countless weeks of manpower to help rural areas, but is stymied by bureaucracy and idiot rules, regulations, taxes and an incumbent with unfair market power.

Hunt said, "The strategy sets out in detail how Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) will help connect the areas that the market alone cannot reach, including a central digital point in every community – preferably community broadband hubs – with a high-speed connection to the nearest exchange. Communities would then take responsibility for extending the network to individual homes."

There is no need to go to the exchanges, unless community kit is used within the exchanges. BT will say there is no room, but there is. The BT infrastructure cannot cope with the volume as it is. There is no point in putting in digital access points in the community if the feed is going to be throttled and capped and charged at an extortionate rate. The communities won't be able to afford it.

Hunt said, "[We are] taking a mixed-technology approach with fixed, wireless and satellite all having a role. It is recognised that one technology is not suitable for all circumstances, although high-capacity fibre optic is likely to be a key feature of the UK's network."

I agree, but with a digital parish pump fed by community owned backhaul there is every incentive for communities to invest in laying fibre. This hasn't happened in the past because the cost of the feed alone would be too much. Once this element is removed and access costs the same as in a city then private investors will step in to deliver to communities who don't want to do it themselves. Wi-Fi is at best a temporary solution, Satellite is a good stop-gap but will always be hampered with latency and be expensive. Both are better than BET, which is obsolete and will only be used to protect the cabal.

Ensuring access to existing infrastructure, including BT's network of ducts and poles.

Speaking to the engineers who do the work has clarified that this will never happen. BT has ducts stuffed with old cables, and in my opinion has no intention of removing them. They know if they do that others may get access, and they can't allow that to happen. If they do then they can't protect their copper phone lines any longer. They will insist on their workers doing any infrastructure installs, this will make it too expensive for anyone to use. In my view, the procedures they will make you go through will be too onerous, time consuming and complicated to ever work.

New guidance to builders and contractors on how to ensure new buildings are broadband-ready.

This must be kept as simple as possible, or the price of houses will go even higher. It will also breed more tick boxes. It should be made compulsory to have some sort of ducting in place for any utilites to access. It's only common sense when all is said and done.

Awarding 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum to allow the development of next generation mobile services; and working with local authorities to reduce the cost of broadband roll-out by clarifying existing guidance on streetworks and micro-trenching.

That is going to be like herding cats. Good luck. The town halls of this country are full of people who like their power base. We are all hoping that "Big Society" will sort them out.

Chris Conder runs a community broadband helpdesk that covers parts of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire, and deals with three separate communications exchanges. She also represented her community network at a conference on Cumbrian broadband in September organised by local MP Rory Stewart.

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This was first published in December 2010

 

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