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The voices of the final few left out of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) roll-out were heard even louder than before in 2015, as the programme reached ever more properties in more remote parts of the UK, and the government scrambled to find a solution that would be acceptable to them.
Meanwhile, it was a year of technical advances as money poured into researching G.fast, a broadband delivery technology that could enable BT to sweat its old copper network for a long time to come. Altnets such as Gigaclear embarked on more fibre network roll-outs and, of course, all the world loves to read about a broadband service outage, as we shall see.
Next year will doubtless see more of the same. As network technology advances in its capabilities and the UK’s average broadband speed keeps on rising, the criticality of broadband to the personal and economic lives of everyone in the country will be writ large.
As shown by the recent award of Computer Weekly’s annual UKtech50 Most Influential Person in UK IT accolade to BT CEO Gavin Patterson, BT will be at the centre of many stories during 2016. We will be waiting with bated breath to see whether or not Ofcom will force it to give up control of its local access division Openreach.
Here are Computer Weekly’s biggest broadband stories from 2015:
In April 2015, a suspected electrical fire which broke out in cable ducts beneath London’s Kingsway was blamed for a broadband service outage that affected many businesses in the city.
Kingsway, which connects Holborn with the Strand, passes a number of key buildings and institutions, including parts of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Aviation House, the headquarters of the Government Digital Service (GDS).
BT subsequently reported that it was having problems with its Infinity fibre broadband service in the Covent Garden area, which meant some customers were having trouble getting online. BT estimated the problems would be resolved by midday on 2 April 2015 while TalkTalk’s service status website similarly reported that “some customers connected to the Covent Garden exchange are experiencing loss of their broadband and TV services.”
At the end of July 2015, BT announced it would pay back £129m of the money it received from local authorities to roll out superfast broadband, as a result of exceeding targets for take-up of the services. The cash will be returned to councils for re-investment into further roll-out of fibre-based connectivity.
BT won most of the £1.7bn funds provided by the government to install superfast broadband into areas previously considered not commercially viable, as part of a programme to reach 95% of the population by the end of 2017. As part of BT’s contracts with councils, there was a “claw-back” clause specifying that BT would pay back some of the cash when adoption of the publicly funded roll-out exceeded 20%.
Other providers besides BT were very active in touting products and services this year. One of 2015’s larger launches saw mobile provider Vodafone get back into the UK broadband sector. Its new service offers three packages: a superfast service of up to 76Mbps, a slower service of up to 37Mbps, and an ADSL service of up to 17Mbps.
Vodafone already runs fixed broadband services in 12 other European markets, where it claims to have 11 million subscribers. Its re-entry into the UK broadband market comes four years after it shut down its Vodafone at Home service – which was launched back in 2006 – and sold its customer base to Plusnet.
Over the summer, fibre broadband supplier Gigaclear won a series of contracts to deliver an ultrafast fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) service to 11,700 homes and businesses in Berkshire, Essex and Gloucestershire.
The three contracts were awarded under the second stage of BDUK as local authorities sought to fill in some of the harder-to-reach parts of the country. The government made several million pounds of funding available to push out Gigaclear’s largest network build to date.
At the start of 2015, Computer Weekly was invited to sit down for an exclusive chat with BT’s head of next generation access Bill Murphy. At the heart of the discussion was Murphy’s argument that BT took on an acceptable and balanced level of risk with BDUK, and could not really have done any more than that. The risk, he notes, also drove a lot of its competitors away during the bidding phase for the contracts.
While it would have been great to take a more ambitious approach, perhaps even bringing fibre right into everyone’s living room, the level of operational risk involved would not have passed that test, he suggested.
In August, the Connecting Devon and Somerset BDUK contract fell apart after the council rejected the awarding of the second phase contract to BT. Stuck in broadband limbo, trade associations representing over 14,000 local businesses lashed out at Devon and Somerset Councils in an open letter.
“We cannot run our businesses on this basis,” the letter said. “Our websites are our shop windows and with every day that passes more of our business processes rely on fast broadband. This is an urgent issue.”
At Broadband World Forum in October, BT announced it had achieved speeds of 5Gbps in laboratory conditions, over a single 35m copper pair, some of the fastest speeds yet achieved using a new type of delivery technology called G.fast, which BT is currently road-testing in the wild.
BT has jumped on the potential of G.fast and, in its charter, Openreach committed to bringing speeds of 300-500Mbps to 10 million homes and businesses using G.fast, in a roll-out that will begin in 2016.
The government’s broadband connection voucher scheme built up a good head of steam throughout 2015, with thousands of eligible SMEs exploiting grants of up to £3,000 to cover the costs of installing superfast broadband.
The BDUK-backed scheme had £40m of funding available to it, spread across 50 cities around the country. Unfortunately, the scheme was wound up after it ran out of money in the autumn.
In June 2015, Ofcom’s chief executive Sharon White announced the imposition of a code of practice on the UK’s largest internet service providers (ISPs), giving consumers more rights.
BT, EE, KC in Hull, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media are all subject to the code, that will allow consumers to walk away from their provider at any point in the contract – not just in the first three months, as it is at present – if speeds fall below the minimum guaranteed access speed and the provider is unable to remedy the problem.
At a parliamentary debate in October 2015, MPs backed widespread calls for BT and Openreach to be forcibly split apart following Ofcom’s market review.
Jesse Norman MP, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, was blunt in his assessment, saying that in contrast to BT’s view – that splitting the two would damage overall investment – a truly independent Openreach could actually invest better and smarter in the national broadband network.