Committee says Government has failed to reduce rural urban broadband gap
The pace at which broadband roll-outs are changing at times does out pace the speed at which the legal processes in the United Kingdom operate at and in the latest Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report into rural connectivity both for fixed line broadband and mobile coverage there are times in the report that old arguments resurface and it seems no matter how much progress has been the same complaints of a few years ago continue.
The report itself uses the Ofcom data, but we have presented our monitoring of the rural/urban divide across Great Britain (Northern Ireland uses a very different set of definitions so is not included) from 2012 to 16th September 2019. The trend over time is that the size of the gap between the superfast coverage lines (we are using the 30 Mbps and faster definition in this case) has been closing. The big gap jump during the 2012 to 2016 period aligns with the initial BDUK contracts and while a lot of the VDSL2 cabinets were rural some urban cabinets were also included depending on the various priorities of the local authority. The phase two contracts featured more FTTP which with its longer build times and higher costs led to smaller footprints and this is shown in the rate of closure between the two superfast lines slowing down. The vast majority of the work delivered through the clawback extension contracts is now FTTP based and BDUK/DCMS does not sign off on an new gap funded work that uses VDSL2, again priorities vary and the gap funding is not all going to rural areas still, e.g. we see business premises in Sheffield gaining access to FTTP via the roll-out there.
The full fibre coverage lines tell a different story, the rural FTTP line started to climb in 2017 and at a faster pace than urban as a result of the BDUK contracts but the rise in commercial urban roll-outs in 2018 means that we are on course for urban full fibre availability to accelerate beyond the rural and a new gap to open up.
The short version of everything said so far, is that if you are in an area of the UK no matter whether urban or rural and are stuck with slow or no decent broadband you will be a lot more upset than you were in 2012. Those in rural areas are likely to be more angry since there has been a succession of politicians and committees urging action in rural areas but while plans are made and platitudes are given there are people who have seen nothing happen.
The future looks brighter though:
- Broadband Universal Service Obligation which should deliver a minimum of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload comes into force in March 2020. While one can debate whether this safety net is adequate, taking the legislation around the block again would delay implementation by another year or so and deny people the opportunity to improve their connectivity. The bulk of the broadband USO will be by deploying 4G home routers and thus relatively cheap, it has been estimated that around 50,000 premises will benefit from fixed line improvements but until BT gets everything up and running and we can observe the outcome it is impossible to know for sure. The broadband USO does include a review mechanism for increasing the minimum speeds but that review is a couple of years away.
- The change in the full fibre ambition from 100% coverage by 2033 to 2025 in theory gives a relatively close end point for when those with pitiful broadband can look forward to joining the best. Whether the 2025 target is morphed to be a Gigabit for all target rather than full fibre is something we are seeking absolute confirmation on from DCMS. The reason for this is that the aim may remain to do as much as absolutely possible using full fibre but just like the LFFN and RGC schemes to avoid legal challenges services that can meet the criteria can also qualify.
Something that continues to be talked about is that there is millions of unused money in the BDUK contracts as a result of savings ie. BT delivered its contractual targets without spending all the money and gainshare where BT returns or marks for return money based on the take-up levels as they get closer to the point where a commercial deployment would have been profitable. If we adopt a position that all those who don't have superfast today in rural areas were to get FTTP via gap funding this would mean intervention for some 773,000 premises in Great Britain costing somewhere between £800 million and £2 billion. Tthe broad range in these figures is because the costs are going to vary greatly and some rural premises might be possible for £1,000 of funding but a good number more will cost several times that, the hint that the costs will be high is that around 700,000 premises are in the deep rural definition. If one recalls the total funding pot from the BDUK projects was around £1.7 billion you can see the size of the problem and why we don't believe that there is enough money currently down the back of the DCMS sofa to just continue to build FTTP in rural areas to totally eliminate the rural broadband problem.
The situation may well change as schemes such as LFFN and RGC deliver but our view on those projects is that for residential rural coverage their impact is measured in decade long terms so what is needed is a clear plan and committed funding for the rural parts of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The existing BDUK process is also too slow to be widely used as part of the wider UK 100% full fibre ambition, one only has to look at Devon and Somerset who are just restarting a phase two procurement process for evidence of that. The gainshare contracts will have am important part to play but what is needed is a consistent plan that can be quickly implemented without the vagueries that arise due to the differences in ambition and local politics that exist across the UK.
So short version if you've got this far, to eliminate the rural broadband divide dedicated resources need to be assigned with a pure focus on rural FTTP infrastructure and existing value for money clauses need to be ignored.
ISPA welcomes the Committee's report and their call for Government to release a statement outlining its strategy for achieving its 2025 nationwide full fibre ambitions. As we said in our letter to the Prime Minister, this is not a can to kick down the road, and the clock is ticking for the Government to take urgent action to ensure that this ambition is realistic.
As the report notes, this strategy requires support from across Government to act quickly and decisively to support industry as they embark on this huge infrastructural challenge. We are also pleased to see that the Committee has adopted ISPA’s recommendations that reform of current wayleave arrangements and delivery of full-fibre connections in new builds is essential to ensure an accelerated full fibre roll out. We look forward to continuing to work with Government to make this a reality.ISPA Chair Andrew Glover commenting on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Committee’s report