Should broadband for the final 10% be one project or a series of increments? Should it be the final 5% or final 10%, and what’s the difference?

Industry colleague John Popham highlighted an article in the Western Morning News covering comments from Devon MP Neil Parish to the BDUK Chief Executive, Chris Townsend. Much of the item wasn’t news – that people in hard to reach rural areas are severely impacted and irritated by the state their broadband.

What did catch my eye was this:

“Mr Townsend said the hardest-to-reach areas would be the focus of the third phase of the programme, with the aim to reach them by 2020 “at the very latest”. He added: “Some of these rural areas are very, very, very hard to reach.”

The first phase of the programme built on the commercial footprint to take coverage from around 70% to about 90% of the UK population. The second phase is seeking to raise this to around 95%, again starting where the previous phase left off. So the quoted third phase will be focussing on the the final 5%.

The challenge this approach has created is that the final 5% is highly fragmented and has become exponentially harder to solve with each passing phase.

A two-pronged approach seeking to solve final 5% as a standalone problem will be asking suppliers to find superfast broadband solutions for clusters of perhaps 1 or 2 premises. Given that much of the final 5% is covered in trees and located at the bottom of long, winding valleys, even wireless models begin to break down at this level of dispersion, especially when factoring in operational support costs for a network with only a handful of customers spanning many square miles of countryside.

In aggregate the final 5% is likely to include 1 – 1.5 million homes and businesses at a population density akin to a desert state like Libya but with that population evenly distributed across the totality of the land.

By way of contrast, a decision was taken in West Oxfordshire to treat the whole of the final 10% as one problem to solve. This was far from a simple decision but its not as hard as creating standalone business cases in a two-stage approach for increasingly fragmented pockets of digital exclusion. While the final 10% is fragmented, it has sufficient clustering to find sensible solutions which are viable for all stakeholders –  community, private and public sectors.

The final 10% is a complex space, and splitting the problem in two is likely to concentrate that complexity in such a way that for some there may simply be no solution.

The approach in West Oxfordshire was to find a model that manages this complexity in a scalable way and maximises digital inclusion.

  1. Chris Conder says:

    Agree totally, but the funding was fixed in such a way that projects like West Oxfordshire have needed two whole years of very clever people’s time to weed their way through the procedures. Well done to them, but very few counties can accomplish that. We need proper government support to solve the issue of getting everyone a fit for purpose connection, and the more we let BT cherrypick the areas the harder the job becomes. The bduk pot should have been used far wisely instead of being handed over for obsolete patches in the way it has been. And to call FTTC ‘fibre broadband’ is an insult and will go down in history as a serious blunder. Serious. Future generations will look back in amazement at the total bloody hash that this, and the previous government have made out of so called ‘digital britain’. Vital vision. Brainwashing. Telco millions for marketing. Ignoring grassroots and communities. Disgraceful waste of an opportunity to lead the world. We end up with the majority stuck on copper for another decade at least.

  2. Walter G M Willocx says:

    I most certainly agree with your comments on the increasing difficulties of cobbling ever smaller, presumably sub-standard 2 Mbps solutions for the remainder.

    However, as so many of the vague calculations quote “Having Access” and “Passing properties” without necessarily connecting them, the numbers without adequate services are likely to be very, very much higher. Then add all those with false BT Openreach AO status and BT Wholesale’s errors, the numbers only go in one direction.

    Although there have been suggestions that additional FTTCs will be installed at some stage, there does not seem to be any firm commitment. Even if extra FTTCs are installed, they cannot possibly cater for adequate services when Openreach now say that any line over 1.8 km cannot receive a VDSL service. The newer Fibre To The Remote Node seems impractical and far more expensive both in installation and maintenance costs, even assuming that field trials are successful.

    Perhaps even more worrying are the FTTC upgrade deployment plans. The Shere exchange is in the Surrey BDUK intervention area. It has had four Huawei 288 cabinets and two Huawei 128 cabinets installed; all ONLY with one set of 100 pr tie cables in one duct !!! PCP 4 in Albury ran out of (presumably) tie cable capacity at the beginning of October and the upgrade date has been postponed twice more now to 17 December. PCP 5 in Shere and PCP 1 in Gomshall have also reached the installed capacity recently with scheduled upgrades on 7 January 2015. For those on long lines and very deep pockets are also disappointed as none of these three have FoD available any longer.

    This situation must surely be ringing alarm bells especially as Surrey was one of the first to adopt a “Superfast” scheme. Many areas seem much further behind so the “iceberg” of inadequate and non-existent faster broadband is yet to be fully recognised.

    I wonder if MPs of all persuasions would like to raise these matters in their General Election manifestos ?

    Those of an inquisitive nature might like to read just the title page of this document we produced in August 2011.

    http://www.texp.co.uk/downloads/SCC%20submission%20Iss%202.pdf

  3. Nick Duffill says:

    Good article. I keep reading elsewhere about “uneconomic areas” and “business cases” in relation to rural broadband. First, it is not exclusively a rural issue. There are pockets of poor service in many urban areas and even cities. Second, it is hardly a new issue. Delivering letters to rural areas is demonstrably “uneconomic” but we are civilised enough to arrange for it to happen – at least until Royal Mail escape from their USC. The answer is for national pricing models, where profitable areas help balance out more expensive ones. The complication here is the privatisation of an organisation that previously could have been held to a national pricing model, followed by market regulation that tries to stimulate a competitive market, which naturally marginalises the uneconomic areas. The result is that taxpayers in these areas have to watch their taxes being used to provide better services to those that already have a service, in the hope that some crumbs might fall from the table.

    • Adrian Wooster says:

      Nick,
      Thanks for your comment. For a fairly comprehensive range of services there is a regulated price already so the mechanism is in place, but as you say its often set on the basis of protecting competitors in a very narrow band of services, or assumes that a lower price is a better one, even if it means the market then finds it difficult to justify fully commercial and timely investments.

  4. Roger Williams says:

    When will remote rural / the final 5% EVER be commercially viable?
    Applying the commercial argument – the answer must simply be that dense and urban populations will always be cheaper to supply, and therefore remote and rural communities will ALWAYS fall outside of what the commercial providers might describe as ‘economically viable’ (as in – delivering sufficient profit).
    We have fantastic examples like B4RN in the UK where a community led solution can cut through the crap and deliver an incredible solution. But not every community has a Chris Conder (and others of course – but I have only met Chris) to have the vision, motivate and drive the solution home.

    In other communities across the globe the government or local government have taken the lead, treating fibre / broadband as a utility – and taking the responsibility for implementation. Is this not the ONLY answer to a fully inclusive solution?

    I am currently conducting a short study for the Federation of Small Business on Broadband Futures, and I would welcome any input or ideas as to how to achieve 100% FTTP in the UK. I learned one fact following the input from Walter above.

    The BT FTTC solution is NOT compatible with FTTP solutions! With an payback over 12 to 14 years!. this is incredibly alarming.

    Are we not all extremely concerned by the BS we are being fed about being one of the fastest Internet Countries on the planet.

    Up to 24 mbps is the ‘Superfast Nation’ (my backside).

    Apologies to Adrian but eMail me on roger.williams@intelligentlinking.co.uk if you have something that can contribute to my report for the FSB.

    • Adrian Wooster says:

      Thanks Roger.

      I agree that urban will mostly be cheaper per premise than rural but its not as marked as many traditional operators might think.

      Although city dwellers tend to live much more closely together, digging up a London street is very more expensive per metre than an Oxfordshire soft verge. Add on to that the demand profile where a city customer has a wide choice of infrastructures from VDSL, ADSL2, WiMax, 4G, DOCSIS and so on. As a result a new entrant in a city might typically expect perhaps 10-20% take-up even if they are the fastest in town.

      Contrast it with a typical rural area where people do live farther apart but have limited options and a greater demand due to the distance from shops, service, etc. What service are available often don’t meet the demand for performance so a new entrant might reasonably expect 40-70% take-up with peaks in some areas higher than that.

      Calix, the US active company, produced some data for a FCC submission that showed that when you stop measuring cost per home passed and start looking at the cost per homes connected, the yardstick that produces a return for the operators, then the costs for rural and urban areas is broadly the same. There are of course extremes (the Cairngorms, and so on) but as an average it appears to be about right.

      There is a lot of received wisdom and assumptions carried over from “up to” DSL models that don’t carry over into the fibre world that need to be challenged, which make it easier for new entrants rather than settled operators to successfully engage with rural areas.

      • Walter G M Willcox says:

        Just to emphasise Adrian’s opinions, B4RN have quite a number of roads and even whole hamlets where they have 100% take up sometimes due, despite all the warm weasel-words broadcast by Lancashire CC and the incumbent, to there being no other option available except a dial-up PSTN modem.

        Similarly a Community Interest Company must, by regulation, support the entire community instead of shareholders. Thus they provide the optimum Point-To-Point symmetric 1 Gbps fibre solution. Such a fibre solution delivers near-identical speeds at any distance and location too. However the incumbent attempts to retain its monopoly by only offering more expensive shared (GPON) asymmetric fibre, in a very small number of cases, with limited maximum and throughput speeds. Such architecture inhibits future enhancements for individual services whereas B4RN can today offer a 10 Gbps symmetric service to any enterprise requiring such speeds anywhere on its network.

        These technically complex concepts might sometimes challenge the unfamiliar public, politicians and some public servants which is why B4RN use the pgrase “true future-proof” to help in the education process.

      • Adrian Wooster says:

        Its interesting how the GPON v Ethernet debate has become polarised in Europe; in much of the world, especially in the US, its just another technology available to operators. Its certainly true that GPON can be misused to limit the scope for unbundling in ways that are much harder with point-to-point Ethernet, but its not something that is mandated by the technology. There are also circumstances where PON solutions have significant benefits, such as overhead installations where the cable weight matters, or in reusing existing ducts like storm drains where cable diameter may matter.

        In the UK there are several GPON networks which have been installed perfectly openly and honestly (e.g. Overbury) and I’m yet to find one which was deployed in a way that would limit flexibility or transparency. That’s not to say they don’t exist or that some may be minded to do so in the future but generally the architecture techniques used to limit the scope of access also limit the longevity and flexibility of the network and therefore reduce investor returns, whether they are commercial, community or public.

        After having gone through a number or procurement exercises from both sides of the fence I think the cost debate over the two architectures remains moot – I don’t think there is very much in it, and local circumstances may swing the decision either way, especially as the cost of installation of any fibre network far outweighs the cost of the cable and sundries.

  5. Walter G M Willcox says:

    We both know of one organisation seemingly much too far removed from real cost-benefit analysis !

    I agree that local circumstance must play a very large part in the procurement design.
    E.g. In B4RN, if you are saturating a sparse rural area across fells and agricultural land with buried ducts, it seems that individual fibres from a relatively small fibre bundle could be more attractive than installing quite bulky splitters in remote chambers. They do have the advantage that they have vast areas of “Green-field sites” rather than any existing ducts. Being mainly in an AONB an underground solution was probably mandatory and it has given them the greater security of minimal storm damage.

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