What is the point of BDUK?

Guy Jarvis, director at NextGenUs UK, on Broadband Delivery UK's bidding guide for local authorities and others interested in taking part in the government's £530m rural broadband programme.

You may have seen Broadband Delivery UK's bidding guide for local authorities and others interested in taking part in the government's £530m rural broadband programme, writes Guy Jarvis, director at NextGenUs UK.

Inspired by two Computer Weekly stories - Telecoms firms threaten BDUK boycott over BT terms and conditions, and its follow-up, Broadband boycott threat comes as no surprise - I would like to share my thoughts on some relevant parts.

The numbers do not stack up

On page nine the guide says: "The local broadband plan will need to identify the potential phasing of any capital funding sought from BDUK. The bid for funding should sit within a BDUK-advised notional grant of £60 per premise, which can be flexed to take account of factors such as topography, population density and network architecture."

£60 per home - hardly worth the time thinking about when the costs of fibre to the premises/home (FTTP/H) are more than £1,000 per home. Even for wireless-rich deployments, the amount on offer is not going to make a material difference really.

Instead, the real issue is hidden in the numbers.

Cumbria is expecting to receive between £10m and £20m to fund high-speed broadband. At £60 per home it could afford to reach between 160,000 and 320,000 homes for a link, bearing in mind that in 2001 there were 225,844 households in Cumbria. This sum will barely pay for a CPE device, let alone build any network.

Interestingly, if you divide £530m by £60 you get roughly 8.3 million homes, or approximately a third of the UK population, the "final third" whose high-speed broadband access needs will not be met by "market forces".

This suggests that the government's real intention here is to give BT £60 per home as a sweetener to roll out fibre to the cabinet with copper to the home.

No demand stimulation

The question then is what else is on the table? Wrapping fibre around electricity cables in the middle mile? How and when does that work though?

If we could get the fibre installed and ready to light for say £15 per metre, and if the £60 per home is devoted entirely to the middle mile or backhaul, then we have a budget of four metres of AccessWrap per home - about enough to reach from doorstep to eave.

Hmmm. That won't work, will it?

On page 10, the guide clearly states that BDUK will not fund demand stimulation activities. This begs the question, "why not?", when it is clear to any informed observer that demand is the key to sustainability, and that without demand there is no point in building the network in the first place.

Rumour has it from several reliable sources that only communities that can demonstrate there is a 40%-plus commitment to take up the service will be considered for the government's largesse, feeble as it is.

NextGenUs has previously advised BDUK that the 42% threshold is what we need for our approach to FTTH deployment, which does not require a public subsidy.

Too little funding

Let me ask again, what is the point of BDUK?

BDUK is causing delay in investment when it does not have the wherewithal to make a material difference anyway. It is also costing the taxpayer who knows how much in salaries, rents, office furniture and other overheads. How exactly is the taxpayer benefitting from BDUK's activity?

Just as a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it seems that with respect to broadband funding, UK plc has the same problem - a little funding will fail to achieve a positive outcome for local communities and may dangerously entrench the status quo.

Perhaps we should call this the anti-catalyst effect, where the promise of a little something causes a much bigger delivery reaction to stall.

Access for all areas

One last point. On page 17, a "not spot" is defined as a geographic postcode area where customers do not have access to fixed-line or wireless broadband. By this definition, there can be no not spots in the UK because satellite is nothing if not wireless!

Considering the above, it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that BDUK is simply unfit for purpose and should be scrapped without further ado.

This will hardly benefit the nation though. I believe we can find a better way forward, avoiding all this angst. It is by an immediate shift to first mile access network building. This will drive demand by showing what future-proof digital services are all about.

And the reasons will not come from the technologists either, but rather from users in all walks of life, from each resident and business who is enabled to explain the benefits, each in their own individual way.

This will allow the market to put the delays of the past nine months behind it and JFDI (just focus and do it), with BDUK being a positive catalyst where it can.

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