The National Audit Office (NAO) report that the Government’s programme to make superfast broadband available to 90% of premises in each area of the UK is running seriously behind schedule has ruffled more than a few feathers in the industry. Satellite providers in particular are screaming as they have been totally overlooked as the UK Government seems to be obsessed with Terrestrial Broadband. Comms Business Investigates.
With the project now expected to be delivered nearly two years later than the original target of May 2015, the CWU believes that insufficient UK Government commitment to the project, rather than foot-dragging by Brussels bureaucrats, is the real cause for the delay.
Demanding urgent action to bring the project back on track, CWU deputy general secretary Andy Kerr points out that, as things stand, economically vulnerable rural communities will continue to suffer from a devastating ‘digital divide’ until 2017 at the earliest.
“The fact that only nine out of 44 local projects are expected to reach their original target of providing 90% superfast coverage by May 2015 is a pretty pathetic reflection on a Government which talks a lot about the importance of Digital Britain yet is singularly failing to deliver,” said Andy.
“While it’s true that EU state aid approval came six months later than originally hoped for, this clearly accounts for only a very small part of what is effectively a two year delay – and the government is being disingenuous to try to suggest otherwise.”
“The truth is that insufficient funding has been made available by the Government to attract any company other than BT to participate in this crucial national endeavour – yet the National Audit Office then goes on to bemoan a ‘lack of competition’ resulting from the fact that other potential suppliers withdrew from the bidding process – a decision those companies clearly made for their own commercial reasons.”
As a result, BT has been left as the only active participant in the programme and the NAO concedes that it is likely to win all 44 projects, to which the Government’s total contribution will be £1.2 billion. Yet the NAO’s statement continues that it has “secured only limited transparency over the costs in BT’s bids” and bemoans that it “does not have strong assurances that costs, take-up assumptions and the extent of contingency contained in BT’s bids are reasonable”.
On the impact to local communities Mark Pearce, strategic alliance director for Enterasys Networks said “Accessing fast, and reliable broadband is increasingly essential for businesses and schools, and the fact that the rollout in rural areas is two year’s behind is simply not good enough.
“Ofsted recently reported that schools in rural areas are failing their poorest children, and lack of broadband in rural areas surely has a part to play in this.
“The influx of BYOD mobile devices is putting pressure on bandwidth, which schools and businesses are struggling to keep up with. Some rural areas have broadband connections slower than 2Mbps, that’s snails pace in our modern world.
“This is having a knock on affect for both businesses and schools, and in some cases pupils are struggling to do their homework because of insufficient Internet access.
“It’s widely known that poor connectivity is creating a digital divide between urban and rural communities and more delays will only result in rural communities falling further and further behind their urban counterparts.
“Superfast broadband is important, not just because of the potential benefits it can bring to both individuals and society but also the role it could play in supporting the central focus of the government: economic growth. Having the fastest Internet in Europe by 2015 is an ambitious target but one that the government needs to hit.”
Whilst the Audit Office report has criticised the cost and expected delays in delivering Super-Fast Broadband to rural areas, it deals only with the contracts awarded and funds allocated, it doesn’t seek to consider any alternatives
Patrick Biewer, Managing Director of SES Broadband Services, has said the criticism of Rural Broadband in the UK by the National Audit Office is overly focussed on terrestrial solutions and says satellite services are now more than capable of filling the gap. “The truth is that there is a credible alternative for non-urban residents that want a speedy service without breaking the bank, but aren’t getting what they need via terrestrial networks,” said Biewer.
“One challenge that satellite broadband has never faced is geographic reach and now speeds and cost are not an issue either. We launched a new satellite late last year able to offer download speeds of 20Mbps to pretty much anywhere in the country. This is almost twice the speed of the country’s average 12Mbps revealed by Ofcom in March,” he added.
SES Broadband Services has invested heavily in high-performance satellite capacity for broadband services, with the launch of Astra 2F late last year soon to be joined by another named Astra 2E which will widen the geographic reach yet further. The first Internet Service Providers (ISP) are already offering competitively priced fast 20Mbps broadband services in the UK using the new satellites at a starting monthly fee of just over £20 per month.
Michael Locke, Managing Director of Satellite Internet, one of the ISPs offering these services to the UK market commented on today’s report.
“The de-emphasis of the 2Mbps everywhere Universal Service Commitment means even after the delivery of the late superfast terrestrial network is complete, there will still be people disadvantaged. This is where satellite is perfect. Satellite can do 20Mbps everywhere right now, so if the government had adopted our satellite plan, this would already have been achieved,” he said.
The challenges involved in delivering optical fibre based communications to rural areas are significant; The Geography is challenging, digging up a road is expensive and intrusive, and the “prize” at the end of the work will be seen by many as negligible.
MLL Telecom offers an alternative solution that can be delivered quickly and offer a very cost effective solution. Microwave Radio is often the most appropriate solution to deliver high capacity to rural areas. There are neither the cost nor delays experienced in having to create new ducts for fibre, nor the inconvenience to residents of having their roads and pavements dug up. Capacities delivered by Microwave Radio are easily sufficient to deliver Super-Fast Broadband to rural towns and villages.
MLL Telecom has experienced a tremendous increase in interest from local authorities and community groups looking at Microwave Radio as an alternative to solve their problem. We have been awarded a number of contracts recently to do just this, with much of the UK being frustrated with the wait and taking proactive action. BT has a huge job ahead of them but there are other ways to supplement their efforts and move away from fibre as the only solution.
David Pinnington, Director of Rural Broadband at MLL Telecom added “The National Audit Report demonstrates that the last 10%, the ‘have nots’ will continue to have nothing until 2017 at the earliest. Using alternative technologies like Super-Fast Rural Wireless not only saves significant costs but can also deliver in the most needed areas, much earlier.”
Andy concludes: “The NAO can’t have it both ways – questioning the value for money from BT’s bids but at the same time criticising the fact that all of BT’s competitors have voluntarily walked away from the process.
“The fact is that BT is the only company prepared to make the necessary investment – taking on significant risk in the process – in order to deliver fast broadband services to rural areas, yet it is then being criticized by competitors, and now apparently the Government, for being too dominant!
“As far as we understand it, very little of the Government’s £1.2bn has been released to BT at this stage, whilst BT has contributed £500m to date and there are still many more contracts to be signed. In fact BT is likely to contribute around 38% of the total funds by the end of the programme, which is well above the 23% claimed in the report.
“You have to wonder what the NAO actually want of BT! The question that needs to be asked is why have BT’s competitors decided not to risk making investments of their own – relying instead on BT’s investment to take their own services to rural areas?
“Rural businesses and communities are crying out for faster broadband services, and superfast broadband infrastructure could be the ideal platform for economic recovery, growth and jobs in the UK if the Government gives it the attention it deserves. BT’s own investment is creating thousands of new long term, skilled jobs and apprenticeships which has been welcomed by the CWU.”
Clearly the NAO need a new advisor. The focus on terrestrial solutions for a problem that could easily be fixed with a satellite solution is simply unacceptable. Super fast broadband is very quickly becoming another essential service like water or electricity. Businesses simply need it to conduct their daily activities and if Britain is going to climb its way out of this “recession” it is going to need all the help it can get.
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