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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

How to spend £530M (or not...)

One of the reasons to keep going with broadband campaigning (despite my frequent attempts to retire from all this grief) must be the chance to meet and have access to people who you would otherwise never come into contact with, and benefit from their thinking. For everything else there is Mastercard, but for quality replies such as this....

This blog post can be read at 5tth.blogspot.com



This weekend, at 8.09am, (which indicates how much the CCC update bothered me!) I sent the following email to someone I met whilst kicking my heels in a bar during the Lisbon 2010 FTTH Council Conference. He looked English, we got talking, and it turned out that, coincidentally, he too was at the conference. We met again in Milan a few weeks ago.

He is MD of a company already supplying 25Mbps and upwards to businesses, and who is about to start connecting rural domestic properties to similar fibre and FiWi services, with or without BDUK.

Whilst he was happy for me to publish his name, I have chosen to anonymise the content of this email. He is not based in Cumbria, and as far as I know his company is not planning to put in even an EoI for the BDUK Cumbria projects. I asked his opinion as someone who is *not* involved in the personalities or politics of this region.

As ever, I make no apologies for my approach to getting problems into the open - blame my Yorkshire upbringing. A spade is a spade is a spade.


Morning

http://www.cumbria.gov.uk/broadband/update.asp


Before I give myself some sort of fatal apoplectic attack at the idiocy of our Council, would you care to make any comments on this from Cumbria County Council yesterday?

Thanks!
Lins

He replied:

From the horse's mouth:

“Our aim is to use these [Rural Market Testing Pilots] to discover exactly what needs to be done to make superfast broadband commercially viable in rural communities as well as urban areas, and to understand what kind of Government support will be necessary.”
Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, 15th July


The first step in understanding how government may invest in extending superfast broadband beyond where the private sector will get to will be the running of 4 market testing pilots in rural areas. The information from these projects, in addition to initiatives that are already going on across the country, will be used to better target possible government intervention and investment in ‘superfast broadband’ in the future.

The above is taken straight from the BDUK website.

Three phrases really stick out here: "market testing", "pilots", and "superfast". In my view these are the crucial elements of what the money should (one might even say "must") be used for.

Superfast

Clearly, there is no dictionary/legal definition of what constitutes superfast. However, I would argue that two, phased, meanings are emerging. The first, short term, measure is to get speeds above those theoretically possible with ADSL 2+ technology. A suitable goalpost for this in my view would be something north of 20 Mbps. For the medium term, then I agree with you that we need 100Mbps access, with a true symmetric capability.

Market testing

Market testing means, in my view, that the market must be tested! Put another way, then IF people do have access to superfast broadband at suitable price points (ie not expensive) then is there a good demand for it, what can it be used for, what will it be used for, etc etc.

Pilot

The BDUK website is VERY specific on this in my view - these are meant to be PILOT projects. They should be testing different solutions, different suppliers even.

So, returning now to the Cumbria "update".

First thing I notice is that the term "superfast" occurs only once in the whole update - in the first sentence as a descriptor for what the Accessible Cumbria project is all about. By the end of the update, the only speed mentioned has dropped to a miserly 2 Mbps. If that is what they think "superfast" means, then they should be sacked on the grounds of gross incompetence.

They then go on to state that "discussions with BDUK to date have focussed on two things", which they specify as:
  • getting the best value for money
  • ensuring any rationing is fair
Getting the best value for money should be measured against those three terms I listed above: Market Testing, Pilot, Superfast. That is what the money is clearly meant to be used for, and so that is what the successful use of that money should be measured against. Using the money for a different purpose should not be allowed and indeed if it is used for other purposes, then the County Council should be made to repay the money.

"Ensuring any rationing is fair" is a silly statement to make as it completely misses the point about what the money is meant to be used for. "Ensuring that the pilot addresses the challenges of delivering superfast broadband to all businesses and communities within Cumbria" would be a much better focus in my view.

The comment about FTTP is utterly ridiculous. Yes, it is expensive, but that is the point of BDUK money being focussed on "final third" areas where it is (supposedly) much harder to justify the investment. In any event, FTTP is only "expensive" where the cost per home passed is much higher than it is in dense, urban areas. Within a village, the homes might well be spaced as close as they are in an urban area and/or the cost of digging might well be less, thus helping to offset a higher home spacing.

The comment, "There are various degrees of enthusiasm and expertise in our communities which would also be shunned by the FTTP approach," is a very vague statement that is neither explained or justified. The person who wrote it is clearly not up to the task.

There then follows a long, rambling discussion about the provision of community points of presence. This serves only one purpose and that is to allow the council to spend the money on improving its own internal network with "spare capacity" perhaps being made available for community use. If they really think that the CLEO network, that they will have specified, could be leased to a supplier to then use for community access then they must have been smoking something. 


To fulfill the criteria of a superfast community point of presence (and for BDUK funding here, it must be superfast), means that the point of presence must be 1Gbps for any sizeable (eg hundred homes and upwards) community. The reason for this is that (assuming fibre delivery) the cost difference between a 100 Mbps and an 1Gbps feed will not be that significant, accepting that 100 Mbps wireless feeds would be ok for very small (few tens of homes perhaps) communities until a fibre path can be established/justified.

It really makes me fume that they think that they should install the CLEO network and then sub-let that to a supplier for community use as this is a classic way to waste money and opportunity. If anything, it should be the other way round - provide the funding that would have been spent anyway on the CLEO network to a supplier to help underpin its rollout of a true "superfast" backhaul network that is offered on an open access basis.

As for the concept of a "Quality Guild", well that just smacks of soviet style socialist thinking. It is also, I suspect, illegal under EU competition law.

Now moving on to the rationing bit...

I have to admit that the bullets do sound ok in and of themselves.

The concept of "broadband coordinators" sounds fine in theory. My real worry would be that it would be local loudmouths (aka "politician" types) who would grab these positions to further their own personal aims.

As with the [redacted] project, I see that the term "pilot" is being rapidly watered down as in "...for BDUK to make a statement about any intentions for Cumbria beyond the pilot phase...". These are meant to be pilot projects to see what works etc, not the pilot phase of a full rollout by the Council!! Megalomania or what?!?

Again, as with the [redacted] project, "action" is unlikely before summer 2012 - nearly two full years after the money was made available. That is little short of pathetic really.

Deploying 1 Gbps community points of presence to every village with (or close to) an existing BT exchange is pretty basic stuff. The costs of deployment are easy to suss out (Openreach EAD circuits have open pricing and the "excess construction" would not take that long for Openreach to assess). The County Council could have held a mini-tender just for the provision of these circuits very quickly and then have got them deployed within around a further six months. Whilst that was going on, the council could have been working on further, localised tenders for the "last mile" bits, combining a healthy mix of fibre and wireless (and even high speed satellite) deployment.

---------

[Note: Despite Ofcom's banning of all usage of the term "superfast broadband" without a TSR, I have permitted it this one last time on the 5tth blog. From now on, use superfast broadband within my hearing at your peril.]

4 comments:

SurreyHills said...

I am sorry to have to contradict your "Horses Mouth". In Ewhurst we had a SEEDA & DEFRA Approved application for doing exactly as the Minister stated, but which has (in all probability) now been withdrawn. Clearly there has been interference with the approved grant process.
Not only was this a full FTTC solution it also included some pilot trials of FTTP. Given the performance of the incumbent in Haslemere down the road we expect a delay of at least two years to provide a poor substitute without any FTTP. More details can be found here:-

http://www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2011/02/25/245620/Regional-development-agency-delays-163150000-community-broadband.htm

PhilT said...

Cumbria does appear to have mission creep in allowing the Pilot to become a de facto Cumbrian BDUK bid for general coverage. The latter should more correctly should be going into the BDUK process announced yesterday and with workshops running this week http://www.culture.gov.uk/publications/7906.aspx

There is a definition of superfast (sorry) in the bidding guide
http://www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/BDUK_bidding_guide.pdf

"Superfast
Broadband
BDUK has defined superfast broadband as having a potential
headline access speed of at least 20Mbps, with no upper limit.
Typically, at a wholesale level, the underlying capability can be
measured in gigabits. The retail market then takes this capability
and delivers affordable propositions." and other moderately useful definitions in Annex A.

Political lobbying at the Jeremy Hunt camp may be required to get the pilot refocussed.

Cumbria's dismissal of FTTH can only be regarded as somewhat premature until it was clear what a bidder may offer. If Ashby-de-la-Launde can be done with zero public money then who's to say that areas of Eden Valley can't be done with a small subsidy per property thereby meeting the £/home target ?

FibreGuy said...

@PhilT

You are exactly on target in your comment.

NextGenUs has been ready to bring inward private investment for the last six months to make gigabit FttH local like Ashby within Cumbria.

If BDUK/CCC can help this happen further and faster then that is good news and refocus on market testing vs thinly spread jam is the right way to move forwards.

Put simply the best way to drive demand is to make real, to create local exemplar FttH networks that put the tools in to the hands of a community.

This act generates awareness, aspiration and desire in the surrounding areas for the same benefit that can now be delivered based on community demand.

So far BDUK might as well mean "Boredband Delay UK" for all the delivery yet witnessed some 9 months since the Industry Day speech by Jeremy Hunt MP that Lindsey quoted in this post.

Cybersavvy UK said...

@surreyhills - the horse's mouth is a direct quote from the BDUK website.

I suspect much of what many of us are endeavouring to do is now contradicting the Minister, and the Chinese Whispers that has pursued the announcements.