Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

BBC survey on broadband notspots

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The BBC has today published the results of a survey it has commissioned into broadband ‘notspots’ – areas where broadband internet access cannot be delivered, or where it runs very slowly.

According to the research, some 15% of UK homes – three million in total – have broadband speeds which are lower than 2 Mbps, the figure suggested in the Digital Britain interim report as the one to which the UK might aspire to reach by 2012 on the basis of a new universal broadband service commitment.

The research, carried in conjunction with SamKnows, a provider of data on broadband availability and performance, identified that ‘notspots’ were not necessarily found just in rural areas but that there was also a high incidence in more urban areas. The outcome of the exercise has been to provide an early mapping of where 2 Mbps cannot be obtained and, therefore, the sorts of work, and investment, that will be required to deliver the 2 Mbps commitment.

Connect and the CWU, in our joint submission to Digital Britain, strongly supported the attempt to encompass a Universal Service Commitment in broadband, but called for it to be characterised by a minimum speed of 2 Mbps, at the point of access by the consumer, and that it should be regularly reviewed.

The reference to point of access by the consumer is key: contention rates, sparked by high levels of traffic on the network, often mean speeds much lower than the headline. A line test of the speed on my line (via an old link on the BBC page reporting this story) at 1.30 today revealed a line speed in my rural, but decently large Perthshire village (consisting of around 900 residents), of 1.9 Mbps – not too shabby, and not far from the commitment. However, a trial 9.9Mb file download took over 30 seconds – an average speed of less than 350 Kbps. On a relatively small file size, this proved not to be too frustrating a delay, but larger and larger file sizes, or streamed video, will quickly become so unless these rates are raised.

From a policy point of view, there are several issues to note here. Firstly, Digital Britain was careful to phrase its suggestion of a commitment to 2 Mbps in the context of speeds ‘up to’ this level. We criticised this in our response as too weak, since it may be met all too easily at more or less current levels of broadband. The three million homes that are unable to get speeds of 2 Mbps may well fall rapidly in number if the test is broadband ‘up to’ 2 Mbps.

Secondly, contention rates need to be tackled if a commitment to 2Mbps is to be delivered in a meaningful way, i.e. at the point of access by the consumer. If my experience today is anything to go by, then there are actually a lot more than three million homes who cannot get 2 Mbps (in the middle of the day).

Thirdly, we do have a recession – and we are looking to private (or privatised) companies to deliver what is, ultimately, a public policy initiative. Their priority is to their shareholders and, in the case of BT, shareholders are looking for a medium-term cut-back in capital expenditure as part of the company’s general cost savings. Connected Research has already blogged about BT’s welcome and stepped-up commitment of £1.5bn of funds in investment in NGA, although last week’s Ofcom determination of the pricing framework for Openreach did attract the company to mutter that the ‘tentative’ steps Ofcom had taken were insufficient and likely to ‘create real disincentives to investment’.

We can cajole, beg, persuade, set the right regulatory regime… to encourage BT to do what we want it too but, ultimately, we lost the right to tell BT what to do when it was privatised. It seems increasingly likely that investment in NGA to deliver the speeds we want, and at the timescale we want, will be controlled by what we – as taxpayers – are prepared to contribute to the cost of it. The role of the public sector in delivering NGA is a debate that is far from over.

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Written by Calvin

27/05/2009 at 2:25 pm

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