Doubts raised over Scottish R100 project delivering to deadline
The broadband situation in Scotland has always been a slightly confusing one since many of the contract targets talked about fibre broadband, but this in reality includes lines that may be 3 or 4 km long in terms of copper distance from the fibre enabled cabinet that is injecting the VDSL2 signal.
The latest Audit Scotland report on what has been delivered by the Digital Scotland roll-out and some of problems with the Community Broadband Scheme may confuse some with the use of fibre again, but they do make it clear early on what they mean.
5. The Scottish Government’s investment in expanding the fibre broadband network across Scotland is intended to provide access to superfast speeds with improved reliability.3 The term fibre broadband covers all broadband technologies that have a fibre element, including fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) and fibre to the premises (FTTP – also known as full fibre) (Appendix).Page 8 Audit Scotland - Superfast Broadband for Scotland
The BT contracts have delivered which will come as a big suprise to those who have not seen any improvements, but that is the nature of any contract that is not set to deliver 100% coverage and had value for money as a big driver, rather than any means testing for who is to benefit.
Some our thinkbroadband data has been used to illustrate the changing broadband landscape in Scotland, with the above chart showing the difference in coverage for a 10 Mbps service in August 2016 versus August 2018. Clearly a lot more to be done in the rural areas and with the existing BDUK roll-outs in Scotland continuing until 2018 and some into 2019 we are going to see further improvements. One observation to make is that almost just like every other BDUK contract BT has had in the final year we are starting to see more FTTP being deployed.
The report is less complimentary about the Community Broadband Scheme, citing a lack of specialist skills, delays and failed procurements for not delivering what was originally expected.
The most important now is not the past, but the future and the hopes that are attached to the R100 project, but the Auditor General does have some concerns over both the timescale and costs of delivering 100% superfast coverage in Scotland by December 2021.
The infographic collates some of the concerns people have had, namely that while the £600 million of funding is a lot larger than any previous BDUK contract, there are premises that may miss out and a lot of this depends on the commercial roll-outs which includes 30,000 premises in urban areas. Another gotcha is there are believed to be some 34,000 premises with a 24 Mbps to 30 Mbps option that are not included in the initial R100 contracts that are due to be awarded in 2019.
If all 211,000 premises were concentrated into two cities then delivery of 100% superfast in a 3 year period would be considered easy, but the widely dispersed nature of Scotland makes the task a lot more difficult and it is for this reason that there is a chance that we may see wireless technology deployed at levels well beyond any previous contract with a slower roll-out of fixed line technology to follow up and tick any full fibre elements of the contracts.
Those in the gap between the two superfast definitions are also most likely to be the ones where due to VDSL2 performance issues may actually only be connecting at 19 Mbps for example even if every other data point suggests that sync speeds of 27 Mbps should be possible. Reasons why this may happen are numerous and range from bad data on the Openreach side through to a VDSL2 on the end of a poor quality phone extension in a home.
We are not going to be slowing down our data modelling, in fact the amount of work has actually increased in 2018 compared to 2017, since the amount of ultrafast broadband delivery has increased and modelling all the new cabinets appearing where no infrastructure existed before takes longer. For those looking at our Scottish data set and wondering why the figures do go down occassionally, this is largely down to chunks of new build premises appearing without superfast broadband by default, though in some cases months down the road we do find that something superfast has appeared.
A reality we believe is that the R100 project is already a casualty since in the minds of a lot of the public the early announcements were all about delivering 100% superfast coverage by 2021 and while cautions were raised at the time around exclusions the joy of soundbite politics and a vaguely technical subject mean that boring but necessary caveats are all too often missed out and thus the perception is that R100 is a 100% superfast by 1am on 1st January 2021 is probably firmly cemented. Yes that date is right, since for the public when you say by 2021 they think you mean then not the fully qualified version which should be by the end of 2021.
Dare we mention the UK wide ambition of 50% full fibre for 2025 and 100% for 2033, it will be interesting to see what impact this ambition has any of the contracts or extension contracts using public money in the next few years. In theory while there is a lot of gainshare/clawback money lying around, the financial pressures on local authorities mean we expect an increasing number to be eyeing up this money that will come back to them eventually as a key ally in balancing the books in future years, rather than being available to get full fibre broadband to another couple of thousand people.