Lack of ambition has been a label easily attached to doom-mongers about the UK's broadband plans, and it appears Jeremy Hunt is attempting to stand up and show some of the ambition and willingness that critics have been asking for. In a speech delivered on 20th August 2012, Jeremy Hunt MP has stated 'I am today announcing an ambition to be not just the best, but specifically the fastest broadband of any major European country by 2015'.
This does not represent a change of policy, the existing BDUK projects will continue with the funding levels already announced, but perhaps reflects a confidence from the minister as to how plans are shaping up. For the millions of the UK population not used to procurement processes, things appear to be going very slowly, and questions about where and when are still only as good as throwing a dart at a map and pinning a random month and date on it that covers the period 2013 to 2015.
"When combined with the additional £150m we are investing in giving our cities some of the fastest speeds in the world, we have been able to make some dramatic progress:
- 43 out of 46 local authority areas now have broadband plans approved for delivering 90% or greater superfast access. Some have gone even further, with my own county, Surrey, looking to deliver one of the most ambitious programmes of all with near-universal superfast coverage. Procurement for virtually all areas is well under way, with around one moving into formal procurement every week from October. I expect procurement to be completed across the whole country by next July.
- In our cities we want even faster speeds. Our £150m urban broadband fund will mean that around 15% of the UK population will have access to speeds of 80-120 Mbps along with universal high speed wi-fi.
- Additionally Ofcom has announced that for the 4G auctions one of the licences will require indoor coverage for 98% of the UK population, guaranteeing a wireless high speed alternative to fixed line broadband.
For some time we have had amongst the highest penetration and the lowest prices of anywhere in Europe. But even before this new procurement has taken place we have already started to make made good progress on speed:
- Average speed in the UK has increased by about 50% since May 2010.
- In the last year alone average speed increased from 7.6 Mbps to 9 Mbps, overtaking France and Germany so we now have the fastest broadband of any large European Country.
- Two thirds of the population are now on packages of more than 10 Mbps, higher than anywhere in Europe except Portugal and perhaps surprisingly Bulgaria."Summary of progress to date, in speech by Jeremy Hunt MP
While the ambition is very welcome, we are hesitant to support this unreservedly, partly because it appears some historical information appears to be a little skewed. Mr Hunt takes credit for putting in place plans for superfast to reach 90% of the population by 2015, but looking back we can see that the Labour Government was working towards the same goal with amazingly the same amount of money. The only difference was that the deadline was 2017 rather than 2015, so we are happy to credit the minister with bringing forward the deadline, but not the vision for creating a faster broadband UK.
We know there will be many reading this who will simply dismiss the minsters comments totally, but we suggest people consider some actual figures. If the BDUK delivers FTTC to 90% of the population, our estimate is that 70% of the UK population will enjoy a speed of 32 Mbps or faster (not 'up to', but actually 32 Mbps or faster), now taking a worst case that the remaining 10% of the UK only receive ADSL2+ (which can be estimated to average out at 6 Mbps), one arrives at a UK average connection speed in 2015 of 24.2 Mbps.
If this prediction is correct, then the UK would be well ahead of all European countries, and not just the major ones, the key is what improvements other European countries can achieve. There are signs that speeds in some countries are improving slower, particularly in countries where fibre installation has done the easy to reach cities and larger towns.
The speech does underestimate what is already planned or delivered though, Virgin Media is already selling 100Mbps broadband that is available to 48% of the UK population. Additionally Openreach is still looking at having its FTTP services available to around 10% of UK homes once its commercial fibre roll-out completes (and at the same prices as the FTTC services). This is ignoring the launch of Fibre on Demand in 2013 which will allow access to full fibre for a higher than normal installation fee.
The battleground for UK broadband is the final 5 to 10% of the population, unfortunately this is also the most expensive population to reach, and in a world dominated by accountants, the estimates are that GDP increases by 1% for every 10% increase in broadband penetration. The priority will therefore be to cover the largest percentage for the minimum amount of money.
The speech today is unlikely to draw much applause from the House of Lords, as the criticism they have aimed at Jeremy Hunt is rebuffed, in particular the pre-occupation with speed rather than coverage. The comment below, clearly shows what has been said for some time, that broadband roll-outs and funding are set to continue for many years.
"Which is why when the Lords Committee criticised me this summer for being preoccupied with speed, I plead guilty. And so should we all. Because we simply will not have a competitive broadband network unless we recognise the massive growth in demand for higher and higher speeds. But where their Lordships are wrong is to say my focus is on any particular speed: today’s superfast is tomorrow’s superslow. Just as the last government was wrong to hang its hat on 2 Mbps speeds, we must never fall into the trap of saying any speed is “enough."Jeremy Hunt on House of Lords Committee Report
There are indications that as firms start to raise venture capital for more FTTH/B projects across the UK, that what the BDUK projects may really achieve is not the roll-out of superfast broadband, but an underpinning of confidence for ambitious companies to move into the arena and compete against one another. If UK broadband is to break the cycle of subsidy and build, then these projects need to thrive, though they are reliant on the broadband buying public knowing that better speeds are available, something the BDUK projects and local authority demand registration schemes are helping with. Perversely the BDUK legacy may not be what it delivers, but what it inspires commercial companies to build and deliver.