Between all the talk of broadband projects coming two years late, and many commentators questioning the involvement of BT and whether it's playing fair, the immortal words of Craig Revel Horwood spring to mind - "it's a disaster darling".
A National Audit Office report has been the basis for the latest round of hand-wringing and criticism over the state of UK broadband, headlining with the news that the projects would complete 22 months later than planned. However, for the handful of people who actually read the report the reality was that the original 90 per cent of the UK with access to superfast broadband services would be hit in May 2016, 12 months after the original goal. The newly announced 95 per cent target that literally was only made public a few weeks ago will take longer and probably be met just before May 2017. Compared to the delays seen in other Government procurement projects this slip is minor and might not even occur.
While the UK is seen as the pauper when it comes to fast broadband services, around 48 per cent of the UK has access to 100 Mbps or 120 Mbps services from Virgin Media. In fact, the commercial roll-out of Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) from Openreach is available to some 15 million homes (a small 100,000 properties can get pure FTTP from Openreach). This is very close to the two-thirds target and as such Openreach is on course to complete its roll-out in the spring of 2014. The issue it seems is that all broadband commentators appear to live in the final third, which some wrongly describe as the rural part of the UK.
The process to deliver superfast broadband to those outside this large commercial footprint has been running now since 2010, with the first connection delivered in December 2012. So far it has passed just 60,000 properties with a target now of around 4.5 million homes. The National Audit Office report appeared to take the various project timelines (which are generally announced on the photo opportunity day or 'contract signing') rather than attempt to look at the speed of the commercial roll-out and whether the BDUK projects can be sped up.
Of course if you are reading this, what you really want to know is if you are going to get faster broadband or not, and the answer is that largely we cannot say. Some councils have published lists of towns and villages, but a massive caveat applies in that no single project has promised 100 per cent superfast coverage. Even if they say 97 per cent coverage, when talking about a county like East Sussex with around 250,000 homes that three per cent is actually 7,500 homes. For now, the way you can be sure to get superfast broadband is move to a property that can already get it. The national press often finds a disgruntled home owner complaining about living five miles outside of some big city and having slow broadband, but the cold commercial reality is that Virgin Media and Openreach have both chased the most densely populated areas so far. Five miles outside of many UK cities can actually feel pretty remote - look at the bus and rail services, for example - and not populated enough to be a viable target.
A massively overlooked situation is those who live in big cities. We are seeing more people in the centre of London realise they have little chance of a superfast service because there has been no Government money handed over yet. There was a super-connected city project, but that always had the aim of boosting business access to faster than 100 Mbps services, with any residential improvements being a side effect. That scheme fell into disarray due to EU State Aid rules and now is set to be a series of vouchers to subsidise business connections and some public Wi-Fi so that people can check in on Facebook and Twitter without using up expensive mobile data allowance. Wi-Fi will also be great for traffic wardens, as their digital camera can then use an Eye-Fi SD card to upload the picture in real-time. There are commercial operators like Ask4 and Hyperoptic who are working to provide fibre connections to flats, and their activity has woken up Openreach to this segment of the market, but coverage is still patchy but excellent when you can get it.
I like to look back to a year ago to when everyone thought the Olympics would be a disaster, but with hard work and the thousands of volunteers it went better than anyone thought it would. Let us hope that the broadband projects suffer a similar fate and deliver what is promised in a timeframe that keeps us all happy. Maybe then we can simply talk about what you can do with your broadband and all that extra speed.
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