When IT Meets Politics

Feb 19 2016   9:26PM GMT

Needed – facts about broadband: What “facts” do we really need?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

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The controversy over the Broadbad report and its use of figures from May 2015 raises the interesting question of what supposed “facts” do we really need … and why?

I have just received an e-mail which gives a contrasting set of ‘facts” to those being quoted in the BT advertising campaign “Home truths about British broadband” – and I am not talking about the claim that Britain invented the Internet,   

It links the claim that Britain has “almost double the superfast broadband ” delivery of countries like France and Italy” to the difference between the UK definition of 24 Mbps and the EU definition of 30Mbps. It contrasts the claim that “90% of the UK can get fibre optic broadband” with the equally correct statement “90% of the UK … can only get a copper broadband service that strangles the fibre bandwidth”. Virgin similarly advertises its coax connections as fibre – albeit coax can run rather faster than even a good quality twisted pair.

Most interestingly it reinterprets BT’s claim that it has invested 10.58 billion in the Openreach network over the past decade using a Wall Street Journal analysis that the investment in Openreach has been static for almost a decade over which the revenues have doubled. The question I would like to ask is: How do the current and planned investment programmes of BT/EE as a whole (i.e. not just Openreach) compare with those of its converging fixed and mobile competitors and/or the many others now seeking to provide UK businesses (not “just” consumers} with world class broadband? 

I have tried to do comparisons but collating the spend of O2, 3, Arqiva, CGI, City Fibre, Colt, Fujitsu, Gigaclear, HP, Hyperoptic, IBM, ITS, O2,  through to National Grid, SSE, Sky, Virgin, Vodafone and Zayo .. and all the others building networks for Central and Local Government and the OTT services and their data centres (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix),   is impossible. All that it certain is that BT no longer has a “natural” monopoly and accounts for rather less than half (it might even be as little as a quarter) of the current rate of spend. 

When it comes to the rural areas where BT has been given “gap funding” funding, the most pertinant question is How many of the premises/postcodes” which supposedly now have “access” to “superfast broadband” lines are connected by lines capable of carrying a broadband signal running reliably at 10 Mbps, 24 Mbps and/or 30 Mbps? And could the back haul cope if take-up was indeed 90%?

The “evidence” emerging from MPs postbags (and Select Committee hearings) is that BT often has no idea of the condition of local lines (in urban as well as rural areas) until after it has enabled a cabinet and has investigated customer complaints that services have not improved as a result. The Postcode maps are also flawed (it would have been better to use the Post Office delivery maps or the Ordnance Survey digital maps) and any future support should be subject to market testing and/or open tender and be much better targeted. BT should also be able to respond more accurately now that it has a better idea of the condition of its networks than the “semi-fictions” used at the time of the original BDUK negotiations. 
 
Another pertinent question is “What is the cost of a superfast broadband service?“. I am bombarded with offers for introductory contracts bundling a phone line, a broadband services and content package for less than the current phone bills on either my business or my personal phone lines. Like many of those working from home I keep these separate for ease of accounting for VAT and Corporation Tax. But either I am not eligible, as an existing customer, or the price rises sharply once the introductory offer is over the price.
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I could go on, but by far the most interesting question is Who would behave any differently if they knew the answers?

We are likely to have announcements from Ofcom and DCMS over the next month or so but the “real answers” will come from the investors who are pondering whether to put funds into:

  • providing London with the communications infrastructure that will enable it to survive as a world class financial services centre (whether inside or outside the EU)
  • helping other cities follow Aberdeen, Bristol, Coventry, Edinburgh, Hammersmith, Peterborough, Woking, York etc. in creating the Fibre/5G infrastructures of the future
  • helping landlords and property managers (from office blocks and shopping malls to business parks) install the Fibre/Wifi/4-5G connectivity for which their tenants will pay
  • helping those living in social housing complexes to realise the benefits of telecare and welfare, not just home shopping and entertainment, for less that their current phone bills.

Last year I made an attempt to identify those willing to work together to help councils get better value for their communications spend. The response was so muted (everyone wanting some-one else to pay and/or do the work) that I put the exercise on hold, save for helping stimulate an attempt to produce common access and wayleave arrangements and supporting guidance: where the benefits were such that city centre landlords were willing to lead the way, despite a lack of enthusiasm for practical co-operation on the part of those content with the current system. That exercise may be about to bear fruit. If so, the climate may a,so be ripe for an attempt at wider co-operation to be more successful.

Interestingly, BT shareholders may be biggest beneficiaries – because it can then focus on working amicably with those councils where it can indeed provide the best solution – while improving quality of service, making a success of the merger with EE and delivering resilient and secure back haul and support services for a society that is increasingly desperate need of them. I will not, therefore, be selling my BT shares. More-over I would expect the family business (if still going) to be using BT as part of its multi-sourcing in ten years time. 

P.S. If separating out Openreach is the “answer”, I still cannot understand what the question was. I believe firmly that the question is “how do we stimulate investment in a world class communications infrastructure that is fit to support a “smart society” – from smart phones through smart toys, consumer goods and cars, through telecare, telemedicine to smart buildings and cities?”  The issues to be addressed go, of course, far wider than just the infrastructure. hence the importance of the “Smart Society” and iGov issues being considered by the Digital Policy Alliance.   

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