The superlatives for describing broadband, and back in its day dial-up, have always caused confusion, so today to see it being reported that the Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander has suggested that high-speed broadband should cover all the UK is taken with some skepticism.
In its day, 56Kbps dial-up connections were often called high-speed as opposed to the older 28Kbps standard, so without specifics it is difficult to know what Danny Alexander really means. Hopefully it is something like a goal of getting broadband at 25Mbps or faster to around 99.9% of the UK by 2018. Earlier would be nice, but if honest, seeing how long funding and procurement takes it seems unlikely a realistic target could be earlier.
The current goal for the whole UK is a Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps by 2015, which originally had a date of 2012 under the Labour government. The use of the word high-speed, rather than super-fast to us suggests perhaps a 10Mbps target, revising the 2Mbps figure. This is a figure that is achievable by satellite and wireless services, removing the need for very long fibre runs in the most remote areas. Newer 4G mobile broadband services such as LTE (Long Term Evolution), should also help with achieving this.
While writing this article we checked on the definition of superfast broadband on the BDUK website, and its glossary lists:
Superfast Broadband – BDUK has defined Superfast Broadband as having a potential headline access speed of at least 20Mbps, with no upper limit. Typically, at a wholesale level, the underlying capability can be measured in gigabits. The retail market then takes this capability and delivers affordable propositions.Extract from BDUK glossary
We recall previously the figure of 25Mbps or faster being the general definition, so either this has changed, or people have been using the wrong figure. A difference of 5Mbps sounds not much, but it is important, since 20Mbps allows ADSL2+ as a solution, and allows retailers to claim that the short exchange only lines that can connect at 20Mbps and higher with ADSL2+ are actually a superfast service. Thus, the small number of people in areas where FTTC is rolled out, but go direct to the exchange rather than the cabinet are unlikely to see any help from BDUK, and no pressure on BT to do a FTTP roll-out for this small number of people.
The Communications Management Association has also waded into the super-fast debate with criticism of BT and Ofcom. There are no surprise to see criticism of BT, it is often seen as holding back things in the UK. Previously it was local-loop unbundling (LLU), now it is duct access through PIA products (Physical Infrastructure Access). Complaining about BT releasing roll-out information in dribs and drabs is harder to stomach. BT has shareholders, and has the freedom to adjust its investment strategies as it sees fit, just like Virgin Media, Sky and TalkTalk. The situation is different in other parts of Europe as the pressure has been to get a largely fibre roll-out done, rather than wholesaled or technology neutral funding, i.e. they build it and then fix the issues later.
Has Ofcom been too light with its regulation? Perhaps, but then the pressure on Ofcom from Westminster has hardly encouraged rapid and decisive action. Also Ofcom is seen as a massive body, and the sum of all its parts may make it pretty large, but those looking after each area that Ofcom covers are usually fairly few in number. If Ofcom bows to pressure and forces a further widening of the split of Openreach from the BT Group, then while the long term result may be better, the medium 2 to 4 year area may see lots of things stall. It has taken a few years for Openreach to find its feet since its creation, and things like fault investigations are still far from ideal - the many layers between consumer and physical line operator resulting in some being stuck in help system loops, or faced with bills for visits that really were of no use.
So no celebrations, just some healthy skepticism over the news of high-speed broadband for all. Concern over where the extra money will come from, for example could more government services where people can walk in and talk to a real person be moved into cyberspace as a way to save money? The goal of online services is all to often to save money, rather than actually improve service, and we should not forget that not everyone wants to or can engage online.