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Last week the Department for Business Innovation and Skills published a 61 page plan titled “Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future” as part of its aim for the UK to have “the best broadband network in Europe by 2015”.

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

Darren Farnden, Head of Marketing

For quite some time now we and others in the industry have discussed the Government’s plans for rolling out superfast broadband, often focusing on key aspects like the 2Mbps USC and using the BBC license fee to fund this, opening up the fibre ducts and reaching the most rural communities via the use of satellite and mobile services. When discussing these highly topical issues the industry has continuously called for more detail explaining exactly how these plans would be achieved and funded. And so we had high expectations of the new publication.

So what does the report reveal?

Having read the report our conclusion is ‘don’t hold your breath’. Don’t get me wrong, we think it’s laudable that the Government recognises the need to deliver a good level of access to communities that fall outside of the more densely populated areas that ‘the market’ first generally serves. It’s just that, well, we can’t help but feel its grand plan will become logistically constrained by complexity, regulatory debate and excessive demand.  The plan is to ‘work with every local authority that wishes to take part’ in a process of development that is to be driven by ‘community need…not Government decisions made in Whitehall’. As good and logical as that sounds though, there’s little if any substance in the report that details exactly how Government will manage the inevitable demand from a huge number of authorities; the timescales and methodology for drawing together each authority’s broadband infrastructure upgrade plans; and how each will ‘take responsibility for the actual civil engineering of the network’.  Neither is there detail behind the BDUK facilitating ‘…the potential availability of a solution at a reasonable cost’. In short, it’s still all a bit grey and vague.

A couple of interesting items in the plan focus on how Britain will benchmark its success against the rest of Europe (well, that it can measure actually) and the creation of ‘digital hubs’ to bring faster access to more rural communities. The plan states ‘There is no single measure which will demonstrate whether we have been successful’ and refers to a ‘best in Europe scorecard’ expected early in 2011 based on four headline indicators: speed, coverage, price and choice. It’ll be interesting to see what new evidence is published outside of what’s already available, especially seeing that the key performance indicators that underpin them are (according to the plan) ‘still in development’.

The creation of the digital hubs meanwhile will appear to happen over the long term based on the £530M spend only after local authorities have developed and submitted their own plans that set out how they will physically undertake the infrastructure build. Reading through the words in the plan, you have to question the viability of it all.

We previously criticised the Government for claiming they wanted to achieve “the best superfast broadband network and connected society in Europe by 2015,” arguing that this was not achievable with their current 2Mbps USC The plan states this is a minimum goal and that later targets include 100% access across Europe to 30Mbps connectivity by 2020 and for 50% of citizens to have access to 100Mbps by this date. Hopefully we’ll be proved wrong and in just 4 years the Government will bring faster access to everyone that the private sector can’t or doesn’t support.

The plan looks at using a variety of technologies to ensure 100% coverage throughout the UK including FTTP, FTTC, DOCSIS (Digital Over Cable Service Interface Specification), PON (Passive Optical Network) and point to- point, wireless, mobile, satellite, and terrestrial TV broadcast facilities. This is said to be necessary due to “the topography of the UK, and complex changes occurring in our consumption of entertainment, news and education services delivered over communications networks.”

Further items covered in the report include:

– Working with utilities companies to minimise civil engineering costs and co-ordinate expensive and time consuming aspects such as digging up roads and encouraging the utilisation of existing infrastructure to deliver connectivity e.g. using existing sewer canals to carry fibre.

– Setting out new guidelines for building contractors to follow regarding ensuring new developments are prepared for broadband e.g. using Fibre instead of copper

– Improving mobile broadband (3G) speeds and coverage through spectrum auctions and regulatory changes.

– Encouraging BT to enable access for rival providers to its cable ducts and telegraph poles

– Extending the superfast pilots with a second batch being added from April 2011.

– The addition of ‘digital hubs’ in remote and rural areas enabling delivery of faster services that would not be provided through private sector investment.

The digital hubs idea is a new one for the Government and hasn’t previously been discussed. The idea is that the fibre would be provided from a larger town/city location to a ‘hub’ which is basically a small building within the remote village. This hub would then manage all the Internet connections for the village either by connecting by further Fibre (FTTP) or via wireless. This would enable remote villages unable to obtain superfast connectivity through private sector funding to achieve faster speeds. This also means that the village community can take responsibility for managing their connections and how they are delivered.

“BDUK will also explore the viability of a broadband community hub at a local level – which could provide the means of extending networks where the community will either take responsibility for the actual civil engineering of the network or take greater control over managing network elements. Networks can then be extended over time to provide enhanced access to broadband for individual premises in a variety of ways.” Sounds very idealistic!

So, is the devil in the detail?

Disappointingly, no. The Government appears to have addressed many of the concerns the industry previously had regarding their broadband plans although they have still failed to categorically define ‘superfast broadband’. This would be a very welcome addition. As we have previously covered the lack of clarity causes confusion and a number of issues when trying to meet the targets that they have set.

Other criticisms include a continued reluctance to address the controversial fibre tax which continues to disproportionately charge smaller ISPs more than BT for installing fibre into rural areas and the continued assumption that the budget (paid for mainly by the BBC license fee) will cover the full costs of the plan despite earlier estimates that stated a total budget of £2-3billion would be required. That’s one hell of a deficit!

More significant in our view though is the fact that this plan appears to rely extensively on lengthy future discussions with an as yet undetermined number of local authorities who want to improve access to their communities; and then Government’s ability to interpret the logistical requirements, figure out who is going to be responsible for what and decide how much of the budget each authority gets. In the meantime, evidence suggests that several authorities are not prepared to wait that long and are already implementing plans with ERDF and other funding.

Have your say!

What do you think of the Government’s published broadband plans? Do you think they will achieve the targets set by the UK Government and the EU within the set timescales? Or do you foresee further problems and missed targets? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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