PAC publishes Improving Broadband report warning of Gigabit delays - updated
A slight deja-vu moment this morning as we covered warnings around the Gigabit target back in December which has been watered down to 85% Gigabit coverage by end of 2025 from its original 100% announced at the current Governments reign in December 2019.
Now there is the Improving Broadband report from the Public Accounts Committee and the shortest summary we can think of is 'could do better and while we think targets will be missed it is not too early to change and hit the 85% goal'.
We published our monthly round-up on UK broadband coverage which throws a massive number of figures out, but to highlight how important every day is with the tracking work we carried out on Thursday 7th January the Gigabit figure has improved from 37.41% to 37.45% and the full fibre figures rose from 19.19% to 19.22% (1.3% of premises have two or FTTP network options).
A massively important point to make is that in the last year progress on the Gigabit front looks very impressive but a lot of this is down to the Virgin Media DOCSIS 3.1 roll-out, which if no more FTTP is built and the Gig1 switch on finishes would deliver 61.9% Gigabit coverage based on todays figures.
One area we must highlight is that while Gigabit coverage in urban areas is likely to be well ahead of rural areas as the Virgin Media DOCSIS 3.1 roll-out continues the problem of access to Gigabit is not a purely rural one and any reports or intervention must take this into account. Media coverage about rural Gigabit broadband targets does tend to reinforce this.
One area that people will have widely differing opinions on is the committee raising concerns that local expertise will be lost, since there will be some wishing that their local authority had not been involved in the superfast BDUK programme at all, others reasonably pleased with the level of help and information and a final group where the programme was well run and information was made available. A big problem for local authorities in the decade of the superfast programme was funding for full time staff and building the appropriate skills set. Certainly the Gigabit wave which is going to be much more centrally controlled would do well to ensure it has staff working locally in the areas where it is building, be they people on a local authority payroll or directly working for BDUK.
On concerns that the PAC has around affordability and provider choice, where public money is spent including a social tarriff clause would be reasonable e.g. if building Gigabit where superfast is not available there should be a superfast option avialable in the £25 to £30/m bracket. The wholesale side of things is more complex, as there are plenty of FTTP networks claiming to be open access but often none of the big named providers use them, talk of a single wholesale operation is bouncing around, but others have tried this before.
Brexit may be over now, but we believe that is one of the reasons the BDUK contracts are not closer to being awarded, i.e. rather than having to follow EU State Aid rules there is scope for different rules, this could range from ripping up the rule book totally through to even stricter rules.
The pandemic will also have played its part, since the shift from a daily office routine at DCMS will no doubt have slowed down things.
A warning to end on, if the Government is pushed hard it does have the fall back option of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite services e.g. Starlink has just started with trial services and there is the Government investment in OneWeb. The lower latency of LEO services will mean latency not as good as FTTP or FTTC but matching or better than ADSL2+. This is a warning because there would still be congestion concerns if the UK tried to put millions on homes onto the LEO services.
Update 1pm: Added comment from Openreach.
“Nationwide coverage by 2025 was always going to be an ambitious target, but it’s right to be ambitious given how critical broadband is to the UK, especially during and post the pandemic.
At Openreach, we’ve consistently championed the need for faster action on rural broadband upgrades, because we don’t want communities left behind and we know it will underpin the UK’s economic, social and environmental recovery.
We’re already building to more than 40,000 homes every week through our commercial investment programme, and we welcome the launch of the Government’s £5 billion subsidy scheme for rural areas.
We’re very keen to lean in and do our bit but, as the PAC report notes, there remain barriers preventing the industry from going faster – like business rates and access to property and land - so it’s vital that these are addressed by Government as a priority.Catherine Colloms, MD for Corporate Affairs Openreach
While Openreach is the dominant FTTP operator (Virgin Media has the next largest FTTP footprint) the comments on business rates are something we expect all the FTTP builders to echo. On the access to property and land this can often be easier for the community led builds but once any commercial operator appears a good many landowners are looking at a way leave as long term income generator.
If the Government wants to be seen to be fully committed to its Gigabit ambitions the easiest way to show this would be to fast track some of the intervention funding and we don't just mean through £50 million at Openreach, but to look at 3 or 4 operators and maybe reach agreements to expand an existing build a further few miles to cover some properties that would otherwise be waiting a few years for something better than ADSL. This would be a lottery but getting the ball rolling is the hardest part and then momentum can be built and greater volumes built.
Update 3pm Statement from Malcom Corbett, INCA's CEO
The altnets have proved themselves over the past few years as a highly capable network of organisations tackling both large-scale city projects and sparsely populated rural areas. Government and Ofcom increasingly understand the value of the independent sector, and with more effective support the altnets can move even faster to help meet the scale of the challenge.
We share the PAC's concerns about rural areas being left behind, and that's why we are working closely with BDUK and Ofcom to ensure that the Government's revised "Outside In" strategy has the best chance of success.Malcolm Corbett, INCA’s CEO