Final 5% or Final 10% – 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.

What the Ofcom broadband data tells us about West Oxfordshire

This week Ofcom released the data sitting behind their recent broadband study. The dataset contains over 1.5m postcodes from across Britain, summarizing the local broadband experience.

The file is far too big to play win in Excel but when loaded into a spatial database it becomes a fantastic resource that will take some time to properly exploit. Given last year’s data was in a similar format it means we may soon be able to build up a picture of the evolution of broadband over time as well, empirically showing the advances that the UK is making.

With the data loaded, I wanted to have a quick look to see what it might show. The map below is a snapshot of West Oxfordshire, the focus of the Cotswolds Broadband project I’m helping.

Ofcom mean broadband speed in West Oxfordshire

The goal of the project is to turn West Oxfordshire into the first district with universal superfast broadband by filling in the areas between BT’s, Virgin’s and Gigaclear’s networks, and what the map shows is the distribution of the mean download speeds.

Its important to understand what this map is saying.

What it doesn’t say that broadband in West Oxfordshire is exceptionally poor; just like any rural district there are pockets of very poor and non-existent broadband but most have access to something and some access to very good broadband.

Instead what its highlighting is that the gap between the best and worst is now very wide.

Those people in the brightest green areas typically average more than 30 Mbps with 10% of postcodes across the district containing premises receiving more than 100 Mbps, with 150 Mbps far from unique.

In contrast, a third of postcodes average less than 10 Mbps, the speed increasingly considered the minimum to be properly functional on the Internet today, while 90% of postcodes contain at least one premise with speeds of less than 10 Mbps.

About 10% of postcodes in West Oxfordshire have neighbours where the gap between the best and worst broadband is more than 100Mbps.

This is a problem fully recognised in West Oxfordshire; that some people may consider an upgrade to 5 or even 10Mbps to be sufficient for their needs, but such an increase wouldn’t amount to keeping pace with the majority in society.

When all the planned broadband investments are complete, the map above should be universally green with postcode averaging less than 24 Mbps.

Cotswolds Broadband passes a milestone

Today Cotswolds Broadband passed something of a milestone in its long journey to ensure everyone in West Oxfordshire has access to superfast broadband – today it is launching the open procurement process to find an organisation to build and maintain their broadband infrastructure.

So what makes it different?

Firstly, the project is a community-led public-private partnership with investment from local people, external professional private investors, and public bodies. The project has so far secured £6.4m for the project with all the stakeholder groups represented – the community alongside the financial and public sectors as true investors.

In addition the state funding is only partially in the form of grants. While BDUK are making a significant grant available, West Oxfordshire District Council are lending their share with the expectation of receiving repayment with interest. The procurement will finalize the level of public subsidy but it is expected to be less than 30% of the total investment, much lower than might typically be expected for such a rural area.

With a trend in the industry towards more integrated delivery models, the resulting infrastructure will be owned by Cotswolds Broadband who will only wholesale services to other providers. An independent community service provider and a mix of other internet and media offerings will offer homes and businesses a rich choice of services.

Some years ago Brian Condon produced his thinking on the different models needed to deliver superfast broadband, encompassing what he called the “Big Me” monopoly, isolated “Islands of Connectivity” and the “Patchwork Quilt” with multiple providers tightly sewn together. Any market is likely to have elements of all of these but West Oxfordshire is rapidly becoming the archetype for the universal patchwork, leveraging a variety of different business models and technologies to ensure no-one is left behind.

West Oxfordshire will have the most diverse and competitive infrastructure in the UK with Cotswolds Broadband, BT, Virgin and Gigaclear all delivering innovative superfast services across the full extent of one of the South East’s most rural areas.

But the bottom line is that when it’s finished, West Oxfordshire will be the first district in the UK with universal superfast broadband, and that is ground-breaking.

NB: The Cotswolds procurement page is here:


Reliable data

Recently we have seen BDUK announce the funding allocations to local authorities and the devolved assemblies, and the companies aiming hoping to get on the national framework have been short-listed. The sums awarded to councils were modelled by BDUK according to their understanding of need, and at the moment the framework companies are trying to develop a consistent understanding of what will be required of them and their shareholders should they be successful.

At stake is the investment of billions of pounds and public and private money, and the future competitiveness of the UK economy. Yet questions have been raise in several quarters for quite some time now about the accuracy of BDUKs data on which all this investment sits. So for the record I decided to correlate a source of data I have grown to trust – from Samknows who in turn get their DSL data from BT – against a set of BDUK data for the same area. The sample included a little over 19,000 postcodes.

BDUK Broadband Speed data

(click the graph to see a bigger version)

The plot shows BDUK speeds along the horizontal with BT speeds on the vertical, with each point representing a postcode average. If the two sets agreed the points should broadly align along the diagonal but its clear there is a limited correlation between the two sets.

This data is for Oxfordshire, so the first location I checked was my own postcode. BDUK suggests that I should get 13971.456kbps while BT suggests I get 6Mbps with ADSL2+. With an ordinary ISP I do in fact get 6 Mbps (Be There uniquely allow me to tune the connection so I get a shade more).

In fact on 76% of occasions the BDUK data offers faster speeds than BT’s reported data, and on average 52% faster.

When focussing in on just the 2 Mbps Universal Service Commitment, relying on BDUK data would result in about 900 postcodes having a problem addressed which doesn’t exist, yet almost 40% of the areas which do suffer broadband at less than 2 Mbps would have been missed altogether.

In 63 cases the discrepancy was more than 22 Mbps – or rather BDUK expected people to receive what they now consider “superfast broadband” when in fact no broadband was available at all.

From what I understand none of the usual sources relied on by the industry provided BDUK with this data and that the speeds are reported to thousandths of a kilobit suggests Excel may have been involved somewhere along the line rather than empirical data.

This information was provided to BDUK but they were largely unconcerned about the discrepancy at the time.

I’ll allow you to come to your own conclusions about the impact this might have had on the decisions BDUK is making and the fairness of funding allocations. For organisations seeking to be part of the framework, this data appears to be having a continuing impact.

NOTE: This is one of a number of blog articles which had gone unpublished for some time, occasionally dusted off and updated but left on the spike. For much of BDUK’s existence I have been supportive, and after it became clear that they were ignoring offers of help and advice from many of the people I know I had remained reluctant to be openly dismissive. But as the programme evolved it has become harder and harder to be supportive, there became fewer and fewer good news stories to write about, and my own postings became less frequent and rarely positive good news stories.

I’m publishing this now to draw a line under the whole process – time to get on with projects that make a difference in reality.

People, politics and technology

MIT recently published a fascinating piece of research, looking at how social interactions can help to define regions based on a massive sample of land-line telephone calls across Great Britain . They used the anonymised information on the 12 billions phone calls made in Britain in a typical month to see if there were any patterns which could describe natural regions based on human interactions. The results are quire extraordinary!

A quick glance at the resulting maps will tell you that Scots only really talk to other Scots (left-most map below), similarly Londoners but to a lesser extent. The rest of the country tells a rather different story, challenging some of our traditional assumptions about regional identity.

Three iterations of partitioning

The right-hand map shows an optimised partitioning of the call data, showing that, for example, Welsh people fall into three regions, only one of  which is solely in Wales. North Wales communicates most strongly with Manchester and the southern part of what we normally associate with the North West; while Mid-Wales links most naturally with the West Midlands. A fair conclusion from this is that if the UK were to be fully devolved, it would make little difference to the day to day communications of the Scottish population, but it would have a profound impact on the Welsh population.

The Yorkshire-Lancashire rivalry also takes a bit of a knock, with West Yorkshire more likely to communicate with the people of Lancashire than their White Rose brethren; and the more rural Cumbrians are perhaps a mini region of their own.

In checking the validity of their approach, the researches aggregated a number of alternative partitioning models, and this generated additional insight into regional identity.

NUTS regions overlaid on the aggregated partitioning models To the west of London the team identified what they consider to be a new region in the making – a Western Crescent formed of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. This is the heart of England’s high-tech industries with the Silicon Corridor along the M4 and Oxfordshire’s Science Vale with Oxford University and Harwell. What it interesting is the ambiguity of the areas communication patterns – rather than having a very clear and arguably insular regional identity, this Western Crescent is something of a communications hub, reaching out to much of central England.

Why is this important?

The traditional regional boundaries being largely consigned to civic roles with political and economic control being passed to new Local Enterprise Partnerships. What these maps suggest is that the regional identities were already being challenged and that perhaps the more fluid LEP structure would be more able to mould itself to our day to day lives. While the South England region, which spanned Kent and Oxfordshire, meant very little to anyone except central Government, an Oxfordshire LEP able to partner with a Thames Valley LEP may be more successful.

And from my own personal perspective such an approach also means its possible to map telecommunications networks to human interactions. The formative signs of a new high-technology region around Oxfordshire sure deserves a commensurate broadband infrastructure? And its role as a natural communications hub surely makes it the place to start building the future? The research should also have a big impact on Cumbria’s Big Society “vanguard”, and ought to shape Herefordshire’s thinking as they develop their broadband pilot.

As I start to work with the new Oxfordshire LEP on their approach to broadband I’m sure this research will become something we refer back to.

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