If barely half UK FTTC lines meet definition for Superfast, how can BDUK be on track?

I recently became embroiled in a dispute as to whether UK Broadband performance should be measured by “speed” supposedly “available” or by that actually experienced by customers. This led me to look at the Think Broadband Figures for October 2015 and compare these with the publicly announced targets and performance measures, e.g. 90% superfast by the end of 2015 or early 2016, as per the latest briefing from the House of Commons Library .

If the median speed of existing “fibre to the cabinet” is only 26 Mbps and if FTTC is the main delivery channel for “superfast” – how can BT/BDUK be on track for 90% availability of either 24 or 30 Mbps by the end of the year?  The only way of achieving this would be for the roll-out plans of Virgin and players like City Fibre, Gigaclear, ITS and Hyperoptic to be very much more more ambitious and advanced than has been said publicly. Or is BT is in a position to upgrade the speeds deliverable over existing FTTC before its GFast field trials are complete? Or am I missing something profound? 

The October figures also help explain why BT wanted the UK to define “Superfast” as “over 24 Mbps”, not “over 30 Mbps”: The median speed for BT’s own FTTC services is below 30. The figures also help explain why Sky, in particular, is so concerned over the quality of services it gets from Openreach. The lines it takes from Openreach have a median speed of barely 22 Mbps. There may be many explanations, but the difference in average speed between the lines supplied by Openreach to BT retail and those supplied to its competitors deserves explanation.

I was also struck by the comment that tiny B4RN would have topped the performance table, with a median speed of almost double anyone else, but was too small to count. Councillor Ian Thompson, a very happy B4RN customer, has done me a thoughtful comment piece (see below) on why the approach would not work for everyone and why such operations should be seen as complementary to those of BT, rather than as competitors.

“After eagerly anticipating the arrival of Superfast service for about two years, we found a house a mile away, just months before the BT fibre cabinet went live in my village. The new house had a broadband speed of 2.3Mbs which was a pleasant surprise considering we only had 2Mbs in the village. However, my new neighbours were only getting 0.4Mbs and were tearing their hair out, so we called BT about Superfast. They had no plan to provide it to as we are just 12 houses on the end of a two mile long cable. It did not make commercial sense even if every house wanted Superfast.

We then heard that a community broadband project (B4RN) was active only two miles away over the hill and its business plan included our hamlet. To cut a long story short, four months later, all 12 houses were connected to the world’s fastest domestic broadband service (fibre to the home with 1Gbs download & 1Gbs upload). Some very happy teenagers, home workers and two businesses whose communications had been revolutionised. It also brought the neighbours closer together because they had shared the experience of achieving something momentous through their own efforts.

The project has now become something of an obsession as communities around us ask for help. We still find ourselves at the bottom of trenches or drilling holes through their walls to help them share the benefit.

Is it right for everyone? – in my opinion, No. I have been asked by people in the village when I will take the fibres to them even though they have Superfast. I have declined, because it is much harder to install fibres in a built up area with tarmac between properties (This is probably why BT only offers fibre to the cabinet and not to the home). Community broadband works best in rural areas where it can cross fields and find its way into hamlets through back gardens.

I have worried about BT reacting to B4RN as an upstart competitor that takes away most of their business in the areas where it operates. However if BT thinks about the problem of economically meeting government broadband availability targets, they should be grateful for rural communities which help themselves. If the hardest 5% installs their own broadband then BT can focus on the easier 95% and do so profitably. I have even heard that BT is waking up to the idea of collaborating with community projects but suspect it is just PR – I hope I am wrong!”

I too hope he is wrong – because it makes good commercial sense for BT to support such exercises rather than compete.

There are, however, issues with backhaul if other local networks are also capable of running at over 100 Mbps on average. Faced with problems in getting backhaul from BT, B4RN was able to get use the Zayo service from Glasgow to Manchester to connect direct to the Manchester Telehouse and thence to LINX – bypassing the chokepoints that throttle back the speeds otherwise achievable. How many others could do likewise? Hence my concern about the need to not only open up underused public sector fibre networks and re-light those private sector networks that were switched off in order to avoid business rates, but to stimulate and reward  investment in filling the gaps and bypassing the bottlenecks.  

I do hope the Chancellor will address some of these issues later this month and help unleash the increase in UK productivity that will follow.