The government has claimed that four out of five UK properties can now access broadband speeds of 24Mbps and above, as Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) marked the passing of its two millionth property.
Backed by a total fund of £1.7bn, BDUK is on course to bring superfast – by Westminster’s definition – access to 95% of the UK by 2017.
BT Openreach engineers conducting the roll out on the ground are currently hitting 40,000 homes and businesses a week. It has passed one million properties since August 2014.
"There are two million more UK homes and businesses with access to superfast broadband than there were two years ago as a result of this ambitious project. This is a tremendous result that is already making a huge difference to millions of people,” said culture secretary Sajid Javid.
The government has said that BDUK will result in the creation of 56,000 jobs in the UK in the next nine years, and claimed that rural economies were already benefiting by £9m every day.
The government will shortly publish more details on how it plans to address the thorny issue of rolling out coverage to the final 5% of the UK that is not covered by existing plans, which will form Phase 3 of the BDUK programme.
Numerous trials of new delivery technologies have been taking place around the country, with one pilot on Exmoor in Devon showing promising results with a satellite solution.
Speaking to Computer Weekly ahead of the formal announcement, BDUK CEO Chris Townsend said Phase 3 of BDUK might well benefit from government plans to rationalise and make better use of the various national networks that it owns.
Last week Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude admitted that the government had “not known” exactly what it owned.
Townsend said: “We have identified a number of potential opportunities for us to use unused capacity, such as [academic network] Janet and Network Rail’s fibre.”
He said BDUK was working with a number of network stakeholders to establish how best to work together in the future.
Questions in parliament
The latest milestone for BDUK comes after a couple of weeks during which the government’s broadband plans have been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny, first by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and subsequently from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee.
In the latest of a series of hearings on BDUK, PAC chair Margaret Hodge criticised the organisation for failing to be vigilant in upholding its targets, and said more hearings would have to be held as she was still not convinced the project presented value for money.
Separately, an EFRA report published at the beginning of February contained a number of recommendations for BDUK. It said that the minimum universal speed should be much faster than 2Mbps, which it said was not even satisfactory for watching BBC iPlayer in high-definition, and argued for the introduction of a rural connection voucher scheme for the last 5%.
In a debate in the Commons held last week, a number of MPs spoke at length about the complaints of constituents who still felt they were being left behind by BDUK, and criticised BT’s infrastructure arm, BT Openreach, for failings over openness and customer service, something Openreach’s CEO Joe Garner has previously acknowledged was a problem.
More on BDUK
Jesse Norman, MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, who has taken a keen interest in BDUK, said: “This [Openreach] is a highly profitable business whose network expansion has been significantly de-risked by lots of cash from taxpayers.
“I should like to see much more openness towards end users, a public commitment to higher standards of service, and, potentially, an opening up of the network so that other operators can offer enhanced services, including customer service – if not, indeed, the possibility of full separation.”
The possibility of Openreach being fully spun out of BT has bubbled to the surface again following the publication of BT’s agreement to buy mobile network operator EE.
In an earnings call last week, Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao called for Ofcom to closely examine the deal, telling analysts he felt it very important the regulators examined BT’s involvement with EE and put in appropriate remedies with regard to network access.
“We [Vodafone, Three-O2, Sky and Virgin] are four Davids to BT’s Goliath,” he quipped.
TalkTalk boss Dido Harding has also previously called for Openreach to be separated from BT.
Garner at Openreach has never yet publicly commented on whether or not he would support such a move. However, he said, the organisation had ploughed £1bn of its shareholders’ money into BDUK and was committed to seeing the roll out through.
“The programme is on schedule overall and our people continue to work flat-out on connecting homes and business in the UK’s hard-to-reach areas. If we come in under budget, savings can be reinvested to take coverage even further,” he said.
“Funds will also be released if take-up exceeds expectations, all of which is further great value for the taxpayer.”