Is better broadband roll-out now just a political football?
For those of us who generally just worry about the technical side of roll-outs the fighting it is frustrating that since the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee meeting these events and political batters are looking to become the centre piece of broadband roll-outs rather the progress that is being made. BT is being painted as evil baron and all too often community led solutions get coverage that make them look like persistent complainers rather than broadband innovators.
Computer Weekly has covered some comments made by Bill Murphy of BT over coffee just before an event at BT headquarters in London on Monday 11th November.
"Speaking at an event in central London this morning, Bill Murphy, managing director of next-generation access for the telecoms giant, said the full-speed and coverage template, detailing who would and would not be getting superfast broadband as part of the government scheme, would remain under lock and key, despite previous statements from BT to the contrary.
When asked why, Murphy said: “Because it’s commercially sensitive information. You can publish [coverage] maps and most councils are doing that… [but] you never know until you get there. We have a plan and a view but you do not know until you do the surveys and build and it is subject to change."Extract from Computer Weekly on BT backtracking
Reading the quote it is difficult to interpret without knowing the original question, following up via twitter we have been told it was "can councils publish the full SCR with postcodes?". The answer does not to us appear to reflect a change in position, but the standard on going position that the roll-outs are fluid in nature, in the same way that in the commercial roll-out some cabinets have vanished from the roll-out as obstacles appear e.g. the quote for power supply is beyond original estimates. The push for value for money, which is a mantra repeated constantly on the projects, means that as the aim is for a percentage coverage if one area proves costly that it might be bypassed and another cheaper to enable area enabled.
With the existence of the much smaller RCBF scheme that has just £20m to spend and was originally meant to target communities in the notional final 10% then this desire to be fluid and react to changes in circumstances is making life very difficult for those projects. Could potential RCBF areas be identified and excluded from the larger BDUK roll-out, yes, is that what the people in those areas want? Or what some operators who would like some public funding want?
We chased BT for an official comment on what Bill Murphy is attributed as saying and received:
"As we said at the PAC committee hearing, we are happy if councils wish to publish their indicative coverage maps, even if they are heavily caveated at this stage. This was a request from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and one that we have been proactively supporting.
As for postcode data, until our very detailed survey work is complete there is no definitive or accurate postcode data that can be provided. Any data available now will undoubtedly change, so local authorities would have raised hopes only to have dashed them. They would also have indicated that some areas may be left out when it is too early to be certain."BT Statement
Openreach could improve its coverage information and be a lot more pro-active in announcing progress updates once the spades break the tarmac (we have seen cabinets delayed by people objecting to a cabinet once stood or unexpected issues, e.g. power cabling where it should not be, so even if a cabinet is stood you cannot be certain of the timeline), but the more Openreach talks the more the impression is given that BT is the place to go to for the faster broadband, thus enhancing the myth of BT Infinity being the only service in BDUK areas.
What is clear is that our elected political masters could have ensured that if the public wanted 100% clear roll-out data that this was a condition of the contracts. This may have made negotiations tougher and possibly resulted in BT wanting extra clauses and time to plan ahead of the contract signings to ensure they do not commit to something.
The growing pressure of opinion against BT makes one wonder if there are millions who would have preferred that Openreach was created as a single National Broadband Authority back in 2006, rather than a business group within the larger BT operation. If this was created as a standalone PLC, then the compensation to BT shareholders would have been punitive, unless the large shareholder groups could have been convinced to accept new shares in this NBA. The other alternative of the operator becoming a nationalised industry would have been even more expensive even before it started to deliver any broadband improvements.
At the end of the day, the problem is basically this, with the limited spending from the public in what each of us is willing to spend on broadband, combined with the desire to get the biggest bang per buck for public money and large investors wanting a clear path to a short term ROI we are in a triage situation, where not everyone can be treated and someone is making that horrid decision of which communities get a better service and which don't.