Broadband News

Is as far as possible the same as 100 percent coverage?

The ambition to get Gigabit connectivity available to 100% of UK homes and businesses by 2025 is obviously not an easy task but it is one of the Conservative Party manifesto promises that is now backed by £5 billion of funding.

As we type this news item the UK is sat at 22.21% Gigabit coverage (full fibre and Gigabit), it would be higher but with the overlap between the Virgin Media and FTTP networks a good chunk of places like Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool already have a choice of two Gigabit services (340,000 premises have both Openreach FTTP and Virgin Media Gig1 options, some 2,237 premises even have Openreach FTTP, Vodafone Gigafast and Virgin Media Gig1).

Wednesday saw Matt Warman MP answering questions on the delivery of broadband and the Rural Gigabit connectivity programme. Transcripts are online via Hansard.

John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP)

I am concerned that the Government have gone completely silent on their 2025 roll-out target for gigabyte-capable broadband; instead, we are told that it will be delivered as soon as possible. It has been five months since the Secretary of State last pledged in the House the Government’s commitment to the Conservative manifesto promise. No statement has been made, and industry voices are growing anxious that without immediate action to address the policy barriers, there is simply no chance whatsoever of achieving the target. Meanwhile, thousands of businesses across rural Scotland continue to struggle with archaic internet speeds. For the avoidance of doubt and for the record: 2025—yes or no?

Matt Warman

The Government have been clear that we will go as fast as we possibly can. We are removing the barriers that the hon. Gentleman discussed, but it is also right to say that it is an immensely challenging target. Going as fast as possible is the right thing to do, and we will work as hard as we possibly can to go as far as we possibly can by 2025. My ambition is absolutely to reach the number in our manifesto that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Extract from House of Commons debate

There are a couple of preceding questions and the following page on Hansard covers the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme, so reading those parts is worthwhile.

Like many political questions a simple yes or no answer is asked for, but a more complex one is given. In this case it appears that yes the ambition to deliver 100% Gigabit still exists but there are qualifiers and while it is not stated one of the biggest problems is that there are many outside factors that could derail the ambition. The largest is that a commercial operator starts down a path to deliver full coverage to area but at a later date has to change its plans or things are delayed - a very real possibility would be a buy out or merger of a commerical firm that introduces a delay to plans while a new owner integrates its new assets.

There is some debate and worry from some that slower services may be considered as meeting the target, with hints that in a few situations something that delivers just 50 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload might be considered. Clearly if the 50 Mbps is the maximum speed people can buy and also is technically possible then that does not tick the Gigabit box, where things start to get murkier is if an area has a fixed wireless service rolled out that guarantees a 50 Mbps connection and the operator is claiming that further upgrades will deliver Gigabit. In our tracking of the Gigabit total we would not accept that sort of thing, because if we were then since Openreach can upgrade its network to FTTP if they wanted we would have to count everywhere they cover with 50 Mbps VDSL2 now as Gigabit capable.

One thing worth repeating for the record is that the deadline we are counting down towards for Gigabit coverage is 31st March 2026.

The £5 billion from Westminster is expected to be spent in three different strands

  1. Continued work via things like Local Full Fibre Network, with things like schools and other public buildings acting as hubs and residents utilising vouchers to get connected to the same provider as who rolled out to the school. This is essentially a recycle of the digital village pump from the 2009 Digital Britain report.
  2. Voucher schemes, allowing those most in need to get ahead of the queue, though given the costs of building to lots of rural areas the vouchers while useful do require a fair bit of cash from the person wanting to get connected. Where the voucher schemes are most useful is if a community or business park can work together to pool vouchers and then the intervention cost per property reduces and vouchers may cover almost all the costs.
  3. A revamped BDUK type programme. It is thought that much smaller lots than the county level chunks from the original BDUK contracts will be used. This could encourage more community led schemes, but conversely might lead to bidders cherry picking and some geographically spread out lots being left behind or only getting served by something that in the short term can only manage 50 Mbps e.g. 700 MHz wireless utilising 5G radio. 

The recent £500 million Government investment in OneWeb and the potential of its low earth orbit (LEO) satellite system is the ultimate backup. Though this in itself is a gamble as OneWeb is unproven and while some tests indicate speeds of 400 Mbps and latency around 32 milliseconds might be possible there is no concrete information on how many will be able to see that 400 Mbps at the same time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the broadband problems faced by people now trying to work from home with speeds of just a couple of meg and the pressure is growing for the Government to move faster on its various broadband ambitions, but being honest about it the only short term solution available would be vouchers. Some will say that the broadband USO should be updated and the use of 4G to meet this be considered just a short term solution with USO invokers simply using the 4G while FTTP is built out to them. A strengthened USO with its inherent legal basis would seem a good way to go, but changes to how that works are not going to be fast due to the mixture of legal time frames, Government, Ofcom and BT.

Ultimately what the UK needs is operators to build out commercially as fast as they are able to and any future procurement programmes to be more dynamic and responsive.

One of the limited often raised by industry is a difficulty in hiring enough people to build at a faster rate and the pandemic does provide some potential there. Obviously you cannot simply go from being laid off by a high street store one day to putting on a harness and climbing a telecom pole the next day, so there needs to be training and apprenticeships and with the right backing from Government the UK could see FTTP roll-outs speeding up month on month after a training lull.

We looked at how far the commercial Gigabit roll-outs would reach back in March and if we get a gap in our FTTP finding schedule we will run the numbers again to see if there has been any substantial changes. In theory the announcement from Openreach that it is shifting from a 15 million FTTP ambition for 2025 to 20 million should change things, but the degree hinges on what the level of overlap is with Virgin Media and other Gigabit capable networks. 

Comments

"Though this in itself is a gamble as OneWeb is unproven and while some tests indicate speeds of 400 Mbps"

Further to that, I remain sceptical about the practicalities of a home antenna achieving even 100Mbps over a distance of 500-750 miles (the altitude of this constellation) if they track the moving satellites (unlikely) or have a lower gain to roam between multiple satellites crossing a wider cone in the general direction aimed.

This is a different proposition from aiming at, and communicating with a geostationary satellite with fixed beams like with TV previous broadband services.

  • prlzx
  • about 1 month ago

To clarify, a single LEO satellite at this orbital altitude passes over the length of the UK in as little as 3 minutes. A proper ground station would likely be connected to multiple satellites at once and have better ways to deal with handovers.

  • prlzx
  • about 1 month ago

If it was possible to fit a telephone line then it is possible to replace the copper with fibre. Whether you want to cost of the installation is a different matter. Conversely government borrowing costs are at historic lows. One solution would be to offer zero rate interest loans to the providers with a 20 year payback time.

  • jabuzzard
  • about 1 month ago

Well quite clearly it is not, nor is a 50Mbps connection Gigabit, Sadly no different than the Scottish R100 thats not actually reaching 100.

  • Swac3
  • about 1 month ago

well if some idiot had not brought covid to this shore, there might have been half a chance of getting gigabit going... :)

as for changing all the copper phone lines, a great many of them are strung from wooden poles overhead..

and if the PM can stop BT from arguing who can use their ducts, it might help.
Another thing in built-up areas is the lack of space in cabinets for hundreds extra DSLAMs ..

  • comnut
  • about 1 month ago

John Nicolson can quite simply shut his Hole, The audacity of the SNP citing a 5 month gap with no visible progress, He should take a long hard look at his Governments R100 project.

July 2017 to July 2020 and Lot1 still doesn't even have a contract awarded. 8 months of silence since Gigaclear objected to the bid result and not a single word.

Due to the failure of the SNP to provide R100, using Johns own words:

"thousands of businesses across rural Scotland continue to struggle with archaic internet speeds"

  • Swac3
  • about 1 month ago

@Swac3
Your frustration should really be directed at Gi**clear who - through sheer greed & selfishness - have delayed R100 to the Northern areas of Scotland (Lot 1).

  • baby_frogmella
  • 30 days ago

Not really, Due to the total lack of any information publicly available regarding their challenge they may be well justified and it's the SNP who are to blame for poor handling of the bid procedure.

What Gigaclear certainly aren't responsible for is a project Touted to provide nationwide coverage to 100% that will not do so, that had contracts due to be awarded in 2018 that then slipped to the end of 2019.

I'm not sure why you feel the need to avoid naming Gigaclear directly, the detail of their challenge may be subject to confidentiality but their Name is not.

  • Swac3
  • 30 days ago

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