How rural is Shoreditch, our supposed technopolis?

There is currently a rush to bid for broadband funds which evaporate on March 31st with events being organised  to help Communities and Councils get better value for their contributions to investment in infrastructure.  Meanwhile “to those that have shall be given and from those that have not …”

Last year J. Small posted a comment on my blog “How Rural is Smithfield”   She has just sent me a copy of letter she has sent to her MP which I reproduce below.

The answer to her first question “Why are DCMS officials forwarding correspondence to BT to respond to?”, may be quite simple. The e-mail addresses used for the departmental official and for the Minister’s parliamentary office appear to have been out of date. The e-mails may well not therefore, have found their way into the normal routine for handling departmental correspondence.  Even if they had, the department would almost certainly wish to contact BT to check the facts or provide comment before drafting a reply for the Minister to send. Given the controversies over broadband I would expect the department/minister to receive hundreds of e-mails per day. DCMS has fewer staff competent to respond on such issues than Ofcom, let alone BT. I would therefore be surprised if BT were not able to respond more quickly.

More interesting are the reasons for the inability of DCMS to take more effective action against appaent anti-competitive behaviour. Ministers cannot give orders to Ofcom about how to do its job and Ofcom has decided on a rather less robust interpretation of its powers than its predecessor, Oftel.  I have blogged before on the differences between Ofcom’s statutory duties as they appear on its website and as they appear in the Communications Act 2003:  particularly the omission of factors to which the Act says Ofcom should “have regard”: from promoting competition and investment to considering the different interests of different ethnic and geographic communities.

I would draw particular attention to Section 5 of the Act: “In performing their duty under this section of furthering the interests of consumers, OFCOM must have regard, in particular, to the interest of those consumers in respect of choice, price, quality of service and value for money.” Those differences, which complemented the policy of the previous government to preserve the BT local loop monopoly until Virgin Media was in a position to compete, help explain much of what has happened since.

Meanwhile  Ofcom’s inability to hold BT to account with regard to the charges it makes to its resellers is illustrated in the small print of relevant NAO reports, I recommend that you read pages 6 and 7 of Volume 2 of that on the Impact of Investment on Consumer Bills. The problems were not only predictable but predicted. They were the reason that previous Conservative Government regulatory policy focused on price and behaviour, not fictional calculations of return on capital.

I ask you to bear this preamble in mind when you read the letter J. Small copied to me and some of the activists of INCA:

Queries to an MP, Friday 28 February 2014

I am a resident in a shared-ownership development built in 2003 and owned by a very large housing association. Like thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of residents up and down the UK, we have “Exchange Only” (EO) lines, not eligible for delivery of superfast broadband via the new fibre infrastructure.

We find ourselves locked down to old ADSL technology, condemned to the wrong side of the digital divide. And ironically, our development is in “Silicon Roundabout“, the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley! I can’t imagine there are whole tracts of premises without superfast fibre access over there, can you? Closer to home, what sticks in the craw: if I could afford to move to live/work in Cornwall, I would be able to get access via fibre. While I applaud efforts to ensure rural areas are as well-connected as urban ones, I do not see why whole swathes of urban areas should be condemned to become digital ghettos. This is utterly outrageous in my opinion.

Over the last two years we have petitioned the housing association, BT and BT OpenReach, plus our local authorities to no avail. In my own experience, the housing association abdicates responsibility, BT sends me to OpenReach, OpenReach asks me to sign an online form expressing interest.

As I said, this isn’t an isolated issue. Sadly, I see others up and down the country trying to highlight this issue by various means, also to no avail. There is a Direct Gov petition. I hear now that the London Assembly is planning to investigate. There are so many discussion postings about this that I’m cross-eyed. Unbelievably, I see distressing postings from folks in brand new developments with EO lines – when there should be a moratorium, right? So yes, I see a lot of blah-blah but no real Plan of Action.

Most recently our Residents Association contacted Simon Towler, Head of Spectrum, Broadband & International ICT, Department for Culture Media and Sports AND Ed Vaizey, UK Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries but neither replied. Instead Andrew Campling — BT’s General Manager, London — got in touch to arrange a meeting, which in the end was also attended by another residents’ association rep as well.

Post-meeting notes report Mr. Campling explained the usual:
— BT are prioritising fibre connectivity into commercial premises, and due to a government grant into rural areas;
— BT therefore charges residents/businesses to re-route EO lines into street cabinets;
— BT prices up the re-routing work, using a hidden and proprietary formula, which ensures BT’s commercial return over a number of years;
— residents/businesses pay the entire bill.

Mr. Campling was also unwilling to help identify EO lines in our area – perhaps to prevent too many people working together?

A number of questions have arisen out of this process, which need addressing. This is the list sent to our local MP :

1) Why is BT replying to queries addressed to the Government?

2) Why exactly are EO lines unable to have fibre provision when they are directly wired into a fibre-enabled exchange?

3) What provision is being made by government to ensure that EO lines are dealt with? What happened to FTTP and FTTH? If trials could happen, the technology clearly exists AND there is no legal or other blockage, so why is there not a nation-wide roll-out?

4) How many properties are on EO just within your constituency? Andrew Campling refused to provide it to us, citing “commercial confidentiality”. However I know for a fact this is a matter of public record.

5) Why should residents/owners pay the cost of re-routing EO lines to street cabinets? Why is the assumption that we should bear the brunt of bad decisions made by developers together with BT (OpenReach?) — up and down the country over the last decades and continuing even today — to avoid installing street cabinets when the development was built? Why s hould residents now pay for BT’s commercial success? Why should developers/original property owners dodge responsibility?

6) Why does BT have a monopoly as the only commercial entity permitted to draw up a quote for re-routing our EO lines into a street cabinet? As a monopoly, why are they permitted to cite “commercial confidentiality” as the reason they cannot reveal their costings?

7) Finally, why should BT Openreach be permitted to not install a street cabinet in or just outside the exchange and re-route our lines into it? That would seem to be a simple and cost-effective solution not just for our development but for all citizens up and down the country who find themselves in this predicament.

I too would love to know the answers to the other six questions, particularly those regarding “commercial confidentiality” both with regard to information that which is (or should be, unless the Council has lost its copies of the planning permissions) a matter of public record (albeit hard work for anyone other than BT to assemble) and with regard to the costs and prices of a regulated monopoly (as is Openreach, albeit not the rest of BT).  

Meanwhile I have suggested that the residents of Housing Associations should band together to ask their landlords to go out to tender, Korean style, for 21st century communications services for their tenants. Hyperoptic , for example would undoubtedly be among the alternative suppliers interested supporting such an exercise. This clip on YouTube shows the CEO of Ventura explaining why  I also draw attention to the low cost (only £25 for community activists) event  being organised by Broadway Partners on how councils and communities can get better value for their money: and not just when matched with BDUK funding .

I suspect we are about to see current broadband roll-out plans overtaken by a perfect storm, as market forces compensate for regulatory failure in the wake of an economic crisis  triggered by events in the Ukraine and the consequent sharp rises in energy and food prices. That will probably be the subject for my next blog.