Watch the DCMS Select Committee creeping dissection of the BT copper bound monopoly

The evidence sessions for the DCMS Select Committee Enquiry into World Class Broadband Connectivity make for excellent reading. As yet their evidence session at Russell’s Water is only available on video but is well worth watching. Malcolm Corbett very politely began the session by avoiding a condemnation of how BDUK had given a monopoly to BT while explaining how it had  driven away the £billions of private sector investment on offer for investment in alternative networks.* I greatly enjoyed the comments from William Perrin, sometime Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) and then Deputy Direct Strategy and Policy in the Cabinet Office.  He was one of the Civil Servants I rated most highly and I finally discovered why he was so good at identifying the realities under the flummery. He grew up on a farm. More recently he had been quoted £54,000 for a 10 meg leased line with no guarantee that it would work better than business lines which turned out to be unable to carry a broadband signal without an “upgrade”.    

I also liked Graham Long ‘s quotation from the Tratos report, Britain’s Broken Broadband to the effect that the UK is seven years behind the rest of Europe in infrastructure investment. I was recently told that BT is still spending £100 million a year on copper cables from BT Cables , using production lines acquired in 2012 in an “interesting” transaction after they had ceased to be competitive with fibre (which already cost less to make). This helps explain why BT is resisting attempts by property developers to go “fibre only” and is trying to ensure the inclusion of mandatory “copper compatibility” in the proposed new DCMS “open access’ procurement guidance for Local Authorities – even if this gets in the way of current international standards. Meanwhile Virgin appears to be purchasing Chinese DOCSYS 3 Coax via BT cables, paying considerably more than for “faster” fibre.  

Meanwhile every City with aspirations to be “smart” (from reliable and ubiquitous mobile and wifi, through buildings and traffic control to telecare and health) will need many times more aerials (inside shopping malls and office complexes as well as outside) to handle 4G and 5G. That will require a spirit of co-operation between landlords, property managers, local authorities and operators (fixed, wifi and mobile) over access and wayleave arragnements that is only now beginning to come about – and is not being help by those seeking statutory “code” powers which take precedence over voluntary agreement. Such cities will also require local internet exchanges, to reduce UK vulnerability to a uniquely centralised Internet peering structure as well as the growing problems of latency (not just over satellite services).   

There is much to be done to secure constructive and forward looking policy but the quality of the DCMS evidence sessions gives me a confidence I have not had before.


 * I did, of course, give the “real” explanation in my blog of April 2012.     

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Where I live BT said that under their co-financing (aka pay twice) scheme they might possibly connect our community of around 100 houses for about £150,000, but first they would need a non-returnable survey fee of about £50,000.

In his evidence to the DCMS Select Committee Malcolm Corbett referred to the value of telling BT that others are bidding to serve a community. A Parish with 1,000 properties left out of the BDUK programme was quoted 40,000 for a cabinet to serve 250 and told the other 750, including the local business parks and sites for 400 new homes, could not be served. Once BT learned they were talking seriously with an alternative supplier, it took another look and realised that the centre of the parish was "commercially viable", (i.e. no charge for the cabinet) and the rest of the parish could be served by three more cabinets, provided the council is willing to contribute 5,000 towards each. Other witnesses referred to errors in the post code mapping and the Scottish policy of removing such communities from the BDUK. It does appear that competition, including for council and other funding when necessary, is the best way forward - including to get value when BT is best placed to provide a timely and affordable solution.