The other way to provide broadband for everyone
The future of the UK Broadband landscape had its last major change in 2009 when the Digital Britain report was published, and the current BDUK projects are the visible legacy from that report. A House of Lords Select Committee was created in early 2012 to report on the progress of Superfast service roll-outs in the United Kingdom, and a large batch of evidence was released in April 2012. Now the final report entitled Broadband for all - an alternative vision has been published, and we have gone through the report to see what changes are proposed.
"110. We recommend that future broadband policy should not be built around precise speed targets end-users can expect to receive in the short-term, however attractive these may be for sloganeers.
114. We anticipate and recommend that policy should be ultimately directed towards universal, point-to-point FTTP as this is a technology not only able to accommodate current demand, but at current rates of growth, will be able to accommodate the UK’s bandwidth demands for many decades to come.
115. In this sense, we recommend that the Government should set out an even bolder vision for broadband policy than is currently the case.
116. Given the impossibility, with current constraints on resources, of rolling out universal point-to-point FTTP, we recommend that Government policy should, as an intermediate step, aim to bring national fibre-optical connectivity—which would include, as a minimum, fully open access fibre back haul—within the reach of every community. This will provide the platform from which basic levels of service can be provided to all, and an improved service where there is sufficient demand."Key Points from House of Lords Select Committee on Communications Report
The report backs a different approach to the one that the current Government and the BDUK are taking, but it is one originally mentioned some years ago, and that is the creation of an extensive network of open access fibre optic hubs in each community across the UK. Alas while the report acknowledges figures on the costs for FTTC (fibre-to-the-cabinet)and FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) across the whole of the UK, no ball-park estimates are given for how many hubs will be built and what their cost will be. The vision is presented as a UK wide one, with talk of over time the fibre hubs reaching deeper into the communities. This suggests that it will create more choice in the cities first before building out to the harder to reach rural communities, which unfortunately is not unlike the failed models that have gone before. Open access to dark fibre is the new key attraction.
So what would this fibre hub provide? Well basically a cabinet in a community, with lots of dark fibre, that can be rented to provide backhaul for local infrastructure projects or a national operator to help connect up their local fibre access. The vision being that this will be significantly cheaper than existing fibre services that are available across the UK, making it more economical to deploy FTTP. This noble cause while extremely attractive does lack any financial analysis, on either the costs to deploy these, who pays for them and any form of guarantee that local networks would be built.
One of the delays with EU State Aid rules and the BDUK projects is the inability to physically unbundle the FTTC and FTTP services from Openreach, whether the same is true with Fujitsu (the other BDUK provider) is unknown. With Openreach, Ofcom imposed a VULA (Virtual Unbundling) requirement, the implementation of which is GEA (Generic Ethernet Access) that TalkTalk and Sky use, thus allowing them to utilise their fibre backhaul networks and provide services that do not rely on the BT Wholesale WBC network.
One area that the House of Lords is highly critical of the BDUK and those behind the process, is the confusion over the labelling of 'Superfast Broadband'. There have been figures of '20 Mbps', '24 Mbps' and '30 Mbps' all being bandied about and various 'up to', 'at least', and 'more than' qualifiers being used. Interestingly rather than recommend a different figure, the committee wants more of the focus to not be on a target speed, but on the minimum speed that a service will deliver and how this compares to the median.
A great many have said in the past that the Universal Service Commitment speed is something they disagree with and instead they believe that the government's 2 Mbps USC should be replaced with a much faster 20 Mbps speed. The House of Lords has looked at the issue of a USO (Universal Service Obligation) versus a USC, but has fallen onto the side of the USC, largely because they can foresee long legal battles over getting any broadband USO passed into law.
Will this report change anything in the UK? It is very unlikely even if adopted now as the correct vision for how broadband should be provided in the 21st Century in the UK that it would have any affect for around five to ten years. Funding a new fibre infrastructure, creating the networks, and once built, physical infrastructure providers actually connecting homes and businesses to it would be a long term project, and would not help those with a desperate need of a better broadband connection. The three largest problems facing the fibre hub idea are:
- Getting the big name providers on-board
- Whether it will address the needs of those with poor broadband first, or just provide another option to those who already can choose between Virgin Media and Openreach infrastructure.
- How many hubs would be needed to cover the UK
Alas the House of Lords, whilst coming to the conclusion that the fibre hub is a good alternative, has not evaluated the scale and costs of doing this. At the crudest level, Openreach already has around 5,500 fibre hubs in communities in the form of telephone exchanges, and has run fibre out to some 20,000 street cabinets. There are another 65,000 Openreach street cabinets that currently only provide copper services. Estimates emerging on the cost per cabinet suggest for Openreach it is around £30,000 to £40,000 for each one. The UK may have over 4,500 villages, but those with the worst broadband often live in settlements that don't count as a village, or live so far away that a hub placed centrally will do little to improve broadband access. Unless thousands of communities can repeat the B4RN model of digging the local network themselves, buying shares and/or donating labour we don't see this alternate vision proceeding very far.