1.3m UK Homes will Never get Fibre Broadband

There are 1.3m homes and businesses right here in the UK, right now, that will never get fit-for-purpose broadband by traditional means.

In the beginning, bringing broadband to UK homes was a race for new custom - a downhill stroll to market share eased by pre-existing holes through which to poke your cables and street-corner cabinets serving hundreds of dwellings at a time. Profits were glorious and people were happy.

The new-found speed of information delivery left us little time to consider whether Google was showing us everything that was, or merely a narrowed accounting of what could make itself digitally known.

To a generation that makes its choices by what can or cannot not be googled, whole businesses, people and places became invisible - stranded on the wrong side of what politicians, businesses and campaigners have labelled the 'digital divide'. Today, broadband is a contentious issue. More than a commercial venture - more than something 'nice-to-have' - a human right insofar as to deny it is a barrier to our participation in the modern world.

There are 1.3m homes and businesses right here in the UK, right now, that will never get fit-for-purpose broadband by traditional means. The rollout of fibre broadband is on the same head-in-sand trajectory as offshore oil, where the easiest and most profitable locations have been exploited, and what remains is beyond worthwhile commercial engagement.

Two years ago, the government raised a budget to offset the economic inviability of bringing fast broadband to geographically challenging parts of the country. Under the title 'Broadband Delivery UK' (BDUK), BT unanimously won the tender as best-equipped to tackle the undertaking. BDUK and BT preside over £1.7bn in public funds, and have promised to lay fibre broadband to 95% of all UK homes by 2017.

How realistic is that?

BDUK would say very. It has been sounding off about its successes this week. Since its inception two years ago, it highlights, it has laid fibre to two million homes, meaning 80% of UK homes and businesses are now 'superfast' (officially measured as 24Mbps or better). That's a mind-boggling number, but here are some others:

•BDUK is halfway through its timeline to reach 95% of UK households by 2017

•There are 26 million homes in the UK, give or take

•With 15% of UK homes still to be connected in order to reach the 95% target, BDUK will have to reach twice as many homes in the same time frame

Sound unlikely to you? Are we to expect a doubling of effort from now until 2017? I think not, especially when there is likely some substance to the parliamentary accusations that BT has carefully picked its battles thus far.

"Cherry picking"' is the way Public Accounts Committee Chair Margaret Hodge MP put it at the recent third hearing we recently attended on rural broadband, held to examine whether BT and BDUK had acted on its previous recommendations around costs and transparency. "BDUK," she remonstrated, "you are not being vigilant enough to fulfil the objective you've set yourselves." Quite.

If Hodge's allegations are on the money - and I believe they are - and BT and BDUK have indeed served themselves small-end-first - an accusation echoed by Meg Hillier (Lab - Hackney South), who at the same meeting pointed out that "low hanging fruit is easy," and that the very "point of this project is to get to the challenging areas" - the hard work is yet to come.

It's probably true of the 15% BDUK hopes to reach over the next two years, and certainly true of the final 5%.

As a thought experiment, let's say that the stops are somehow pulled, the politics somehow set aside and the funding somehow multiplied and we do indeed reach the promised target by 2017. Even then there still remains 5% of UK households for whom fibre broadband will never arrive without the help of community self-funding. The sliver of hope for 1.3m homes and businesses at risk of disappearing down the digital sinkhole rests on a set of unreliable, expensive and largely unscalable band-aid solutions.

Oil, to revisit the metaphor, exists in excess of two miles beneath the ocean, but it's worth less than the cost of getting to it. Compare fibre optic broadband. Bringing 'superfast' to the last 5% of UK households is going to be prohibitively expensive, achingly difficult and far from ideal. If we're to move the conversation forward, we have to engage with it on these terms. We cannot afford to scale forwards past achievements when bigger, harder-to-solve problems lie ahead.

That's the danger in headlining '95% by 2017'.

As front-page 'matter' it fails to prevent the lazy calculation that if 19 out of 20 households can be reached across a four year period, everyone else will be served in short order thereafter.

I am one of the final 5%. I live in a hamlet of six houses within a collection of smallholdings. As editor-in-chief of Cable.co.uk, I know I will never get fibre. Others like me know it. The government knows it. You possibly didn't, because '1.3m UK homes will never get fibre broadband' isn't a headline any incumbent government wants you to read.


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