The summary produced to help MPs contributing to the Westminster Hall debate on Superfast Broadband roll-out helps explain why debate is so confused and bitter. The Librarians of the House of Commons preface a summary of the official sources (particularly the Ofcom “European Scorecard”) with links to recent articles which call in question the methodologies used in those sources.
Those who say that the UK is lagging behind commonly quote the services available across Scandinavia, the Netherlands, parts of Eastern Europe and the tiger economies of the Far East. The Ofcom Scorecard compares our performance with France, Germany, Italy and Spain – where the incumbent operators are doing no better than their UK equivalent – BT. Those in the lead have competitive markets with varying mixes of private sector and community (including municipal) enterprise.providing more modern local services.
Then there is the measurement of speed – beginning with the meaning of 2Mbs. Is this a guarantee of 2 Mbs minimum speed or a circuit rated at “up to 2Mbs”: i.e. a supposed average of 2Mbs over the course of 24hours: faster when no-one else in the neighbourhood is on-line but slower, sometimes below 50kbs, during peak periods. Given that “up to 8Mbs” may well deliver well below 2Mbs during peak periods we can see why DEFRA would probably have had to abandon the on-line Farm Payments system, even if the system had been otherwise fit for purpose.
Page 16 onwards of the summary produced by the House of Commons library quotes Ofcom data indicating a 21% increase in average speed over the past year but this is for urban areas served by fibre services but suburban and rural areas have seen little or no change. The Ofcom release only quotes variations around the average for a few high speed services(e.g 96% of those receiving the Sky “up to 38 Mbps” service receive at least 90% of their maximum speed at peak times while only 7% of EE customers do so). I have been told (by sources other than Ofcom) that the omission is because the service used does not work reliably at lower speeds, such as the “up to 8 Mbps” common in rural areas.
I hope that the debate will focus on the present and the future, not who is to blame for the past, because the world has moved on since Rory Stewart fired the starting gun for the Great Rural Broadband race, in Reghed in 2010. At one end of the spectrum, the local community champion B4RN now provides fibre to over 1,000 premises, is in the process of launching subsidiaries to serve additional communities, and is about to pay its first dividend (albeit I will probably frame my cheque rather than cash it). At the other end HM Treasury has agreed to underwrite 3 bIllion of investment to enable Virgin to restart its roll-out to cover those areas abandoned when Telewest and NTL went all but broke. We can argue whether national progress would have been faster had DCMS officials not insisted on providing “guidance” to local authorities and hired consultants who understood neither telecoms nor state aid rules, while BT focused on delivering the infrastructure for the Olympics instead of the rest of the UK. [P.S. Wapping still appears stuck with 8 Mbs]
The roll out is now accelerating as BT discovers that it cannot sell its sports content to those served only by long lines of crapband (Copper, Rust, Aluminium and other Pollutants from the cabinet to the home). Meanwhile previously docile local authorities are considering whether to produce guidance on how to copy those who have done deals with its competitors (from Cities like York and Peterborough.to counties like Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire ) in order to prevent the jobs of the future migrating elsewhere.
Meanwhile the new team at Ofcom looks set to restore its role, as a competition regulator, using realistic measures of price, performance and behaviour instead of playing regulatory games over cost of capital and return on investments, with all-too-predictable results.
I therefore hope that the debate will focus on what is happening now needs to happen now and that the Minister’s response will cover not just how to get better value from the state aid to BT, but what is being done to encourage fund managers to invest in British Broadband infrastructures (to collectively form an ubiquitous, reliable, resilient, inter-operable fixed and mobile mesh) that is fit for the future – and not follow the shareholders of O2 and EE in selling out to put their funds elsewhere.
It may be that he cannot comment (in advance of the budget) on how the next phase of state aid will used, but I hope that he will be able to reassure those who voted for his new Secretary of State (MP for Malden) and his ministerial colleagues with even less well served seats (from West Dorset to Westminster), as well as new Chairmen of the Public Accounts Committee (MP for Shoreditch), of the DCMS Select Committee (MP for Herefordshire) and of the DEFRA Select Committee that genuine progress is being made, not just in the Northern Power House (with bandwidth hungry players moving from Soho and Shoreditch to Manchester), even if the Chancellor intends to take most of the credit.