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An attempt to get the hashtag ‘they don’t get that in the Rhondda’ to trend on Twitter helped to raise the profile of how rural communities are fast becoming the ‘have nots’ in many aspects of modern society. Contributions to the tag varied from takeaway pizza to taxi availability after dark to the lack of fibre optic broadband. While entertaining, the underlying message is serious and one that the communications industry has been debating for years – how to ensure connectivity parity between urban and rural communities.

The Superfast Broadband Programme – announced by Prime Minister David Cameron back in 2010 – aims to level the playing field by bringing fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) connectivity to at least 95% of the UK by the end of the 2017. This spring has seen a flurry of press activity around Phase One completions (i.e. counties achieving their 90% coverage target) demonstrating that BT and BDUK are on target with the rollout, but consumers continue to feel duped and disappointed that the reality doesn’t match up to their expectations. And for this the Government needs to accept some responsibility.

How consumers are ACTUALLY being failed

Expectations were set by Mr. Cameron when he announced the Rural Broadband Programme back in 2010 – it was only in late 2014 that the word ‘rural’ was dropped and the scheme renamed the Superfast Broadband Scheme to more accurately reflect the reality of the rollout. It may have always been the intention for the Programme to provide the whole of the kingdom (where populated) with access to superfast speeds instead of provisioning decent broadband only to rural communities, but nobody told those who live or work in rural communities that.

Further expectations were set in terms of the speeds that are available once superfast technology has been enabled. The BDUK’s website says “The Government’s aim is to provide superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps or more) for at least 95% of UK premises [by the end of 2017]” but those within the industry know this to be misleading as speed is dependent on a whole host of factors and cannot be guaranteed.  

The road to getting it right

In business we’re regularly told that the key to getting it right is communication, communication, communication. Keep people informed about what’s going on and invariably they’ll be OK with it. So it stands to reason that if we’re actually honest with the general public about why the programme has been approached the way in which it has, and educate people (including those members of Parliament that clearly don’t understand our industry) about the complexities and vagaries of broadband provisioning, then they’ll understand.

Truth #1 – The Internet isn’t magic that comes out of the air

The nature of our communications infrastructure means that the Internet is an intangible thing that can’t be seen, heard, smelled or felt. For this reason (and in part as a result of wireless technology) many believe that the internet is magicked out of the air. The truth is that it exists to deliver packets of data from point A to point B via a network of global computers which – to allow transit of the data – are usually connected together by cables. These cables can be twisted pair copper  (ADSL or Ethernet), spun glass (fibre), or in the case of Virgin, coaxial cable (also copper).  It is the quality, length and type of cabling used that determines the speed at which data can travel, and therefore the speed at which a person can access the data delivered (downloaded). The same is also true of data that a person wishes to send, or upload.

Given that we live in a first-world environment where it’s unthinkable to spoil our vistas with miles of overland cables, we put them mostly underground (where they get wet) – and this costs a lot of money – or string them on poles (where they get struck by lightning periodically).

Truth #2 – Geography has an impact

When you understand that access to the Internet requires cabling that is largely hidden underground, you need to understand that the location of the premises to be connected (be it home or business) really matters.

The simple virtue that rural communities are more disparately located and require longer lines for data to travel along makes them a more complex prospect to any provider, including giants like BT. So it really is no surprise that the rollout is focusing on the ‘lower hanging fruit’ that is less costly and technically easier to connect (and which will yield the greater financial return). What this means in reality is that the rollout of superfast capability will focus on more urban locations where the difference can be felt by the greatest number at the lowest cost. Unsurprisingly, this is why we now have the issue of “the final 5%”.

Truth #3 – Distance also has an impact on fibre

Distance also comes into play once the “superfast” infrastructure has been installed and enabled. It’s unlikely that the speeds experienced by those in rural locations will ever match the speeds experienced by urban communities on the same type of line. The nature of the beast is that performance is related to the length and quality of the copper that comes into the premises, which happens regardless of whether the broadband functions on ADSL or FTTC (Fibre-To-The-Cabinet)). At its most basic, the longer the length of copper, the slower the achievable speed.

Truth #4 – Broadband providers exist to make a profit

Although the forerunner to the present-day BT Group plc was under state control via the Post Office, the business was privatised (to increase competition, among other things) in 1984 and its sole purpose since has been to make a profit; and quick cash on the balance sheet is really quite attractive. To this end, commerciality is a major deciding factor in whether or not superfast capability is enabled. This is why certain cabinets have been enabled under Phase 1 of the Superfast Broadband Programme and others, often within the same town, have not. Quite simply, the larger the number of premises to be connected to a cabinet, the higher the commercial viability and thus the more likely it is that it will be enabled sooner rather than later.

Truth #5 – Openreach are a law unto themselves

Openreach is the communications infrastructure company which owns and maintains the fibres, wires, ducting and cables that connect nearly all businesses and homes in the UK to the national broadband and telephone network. Once part of BT Group, it was forced into a subsidiary status by Ofcom and given a mandate to provide an equal level of service to every customer in the country. It is however infamous for giving an equal level of extremely poor service to its customers. Given its virtual monopoly however, there is arguably little incentive for Openreach to improve its service levels as there is nowhere else for the customer to go.

Any changes that need to be made to the communications infrastructure must be referred to and completed by an Openreach engineer which can cause bottlenecks and delays in service. Notably the Internet Service Provider (ISP) can do nothing about this. What’s more, the Openreach operating model is very process driven, with tasks needing to be completed in a certain order by named individuals, which once again has the potential to cause disruption, frustrations and delays that the ISP can do little about.

The future

As our lives become increasingly dependent on the Internet, the faster the connection speeds we’ll come to expect. And while technology will undoubtedly continue to develop to support this insatiable need for connectivity, the need for communication with and the education of the general public will continue unabated.

Have your say!

Are you frustrated by the way in which the Superfast Broadband Programme is being delivered? Do you think consumers need to be better educated in the provisioning process? Are you or your customers troubled by poor connectivity and if so, how are you handling it? Have your say by leaving us a comment below.

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2 Responses to “5 truths about the broadband rollout”

  1. We are in the Peak District. 30 minutes from Sheffield and 40 mins from Manchester. Our village cabinet was fibre enabled last summer and we were mailed with invitations to join the high speed, fibre based revolution. Quotes on letters told us the ‘good news’ that ‘high speed fibre’ had come to our village. At 1600m or more away from the cabinet it then became clear that those that bought fibre contracts (higher priced than their ADSL contracts) following a phone call and a promise of enhanced speeds actually got slower speeds compared with copper. So they went from about 15 mbps on copper to 8 mbps on the new fibre installation. Some were even sold Infinity packages and got 8 mbps.
    Not just mis leading or unclear, but knowingly sold products that could not deliver anywhere needs the promised speeds. BT even now are not willing to accept anything was wrong and therefore do not require to refund payments. It will take a complaint to the Ombudsmen now that 8 weeks of complaints have elapsed since we realised the ‘scam’ to attempt to resolve the situation.
    Some might call this the equivalent to PPI mis-selling.

  2. I live in Watford on a estate built between 2010-2013 (over 200 flats and around 50 houses). Fibre optic cabinet is across the road (small residential road) about 150 yards from our house. Nope, BT does not even have plans to roll out fibre in our area. And guess what, we cannot apply for community programme, because we are not in rural area. They are exploring options whilst we have an Internet speed of 2Mbs. Wow!

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