We need to stop focusing on the “rural” in rural broadband

The UK has a massive, massive problem in the old infrastructure that is being propped up to support next-generation access. NGA implies that the access network is a next-generation technology, and in the UK’s interpretation of that it sort of is – we’re changing from ADSL2+ to VDSL2.

What we aren’t changing is the copper. We’re eliminating some of it by running some more fibre closer to people’s homes, but we’re not getting rid of the copper.

Copper has a limited lifespan. We’re already seeing this in some areas, both rural and urban. Especially where copper has been poorly installed or is waterlogged, 75+-year-old cables are not going to carry the UK into the next generation access era.

All the current “NGA” rollout is accomplishing is extension of fibre to cabinets. Sure, in many areas this will make eventual FTTP deployment easier, but it’s not going to solve the problem, and it won’t make the FTTP deployment any easier compared to just doing a FTTP rollout instead of overlaying FTTP on a FTTC deployment.

So why are we sinking £1.2 billion or more into subsidizing a network roll-out which will not deliver true next generation access? Look at any other country – the UK has and will have the worst internet connectivity in much of the developed world. We have no universal service commitment outside of a notional 2Mbps contractual obligation in the BDUK roll-out, where other countries have defined internet access as a basic human right. 2Mbps down is laughable. It’s a number plucked out of the air. It’s already obsolete for the majority of applications. With a relatively stable 4/0.4Mbps asymmetric line I have trouble with line congestion listening to internet radio or having a conversation on Skype. With 2Mbps down required (but no upstream requirement) these tasks everyone assumes will “just work” simply won’t.

This isn’t just happening in rural areas. Urban areas suffer the same problems, even after FTTC roll-out – some people are too far from the cabinet to get shiny new VDSL2 connectivity. ADSL2+ is only marginally better.

So let’s play this out a bit – in 2015 the roll-out will be “done”. In 2017, it might actually be done by BT’s measure of completeness.

What will the UK geography look like? It’ll be a massive patchwork quilt of not-spots, surrounded by areas where internet connectivity is “good enough”. The not-spots will now be utterly impossible to connect commercially. Each one will be a £50,000 or more investment to fix (approx cost of a local cabinet w/backhaul). No community caught in a not-spot will be able to raise this kind of funding, and the government – having just sunk £1.2 billion into spending on this – will not want to put another billion or ten in just to connect the remaining 3-5% of properties. That’s about a million homes (out of roughly 25 million in the UK), in theory.

How about private enterprise? Well, how would you like to do it? £50,000 investment plus backhaul rental and operational/support costs. Return on investment – well, call it 50 lines for that much money if you get everyone’s business, let’s assume your margin is £5/mo/line. That’s a 17 year return on investment before you even break even. Not many commercial ventures would even look at that.

Now try and scale that up – massive initial investment to cover one of these patches would be needed hundreds of times per county council, by my guess (looking at a few rollout maps). The amount of spend required is huge. Commercially, it’s insane and you’d have to have something wrong with you to even consider it.

So we’ll end up with not-spots that never can be connected, unless the 50 houses in our example by some miracle includes a family of network and civil engineers with spare time on their hands. How can we avoid this happening, then?

Well, at this point we can’t stop BDUK. That’s happening. It may prove, in my opinion, the most damaging decision any government ever took in relation to the UK’s internet infrastructure and future economic potential. We’re in for the ride and there are no brakes on that train.

What can we do to mitigate this patchwork quilt of not-spots? Councils should be mandating 100% coverage by BT and making sure that BT actually deliver their promised headline speeds in areas, and holding them to account. This is mostly impossible in areas where a contract is signed. Where it’s not signed, there seems to be such a criminal lack of competence in councils (both in contract management and internet access networking) it seems improbable that even with direct guidance by BDUK/DCMS any of the councils would manage to make that work. It’d be a good start, though.

Aside from that we can look again at the funding. If government can admit that this approach won’t work, we might be able to have a sensible discussion with some technical experts on board from the get-go instead of an army of management consultants. Fixing the UK’s internet connectivity will not be cheap – but I’d wager it would have more popular support than HS2, and I would guarantee a higher return on investment, faster, for the UK economy.

Without investment in the right technological solution – active point to point FTTP – from the get-go, we’re being left in the dust of our European partners (who are managing to do their roll-outs without EU state aid, notably, while the UK has made the most state aid requests for broadband infrastructure of any state in Europe, despite delivering the slowest speeds). We’re being left behind the rest of the world. And it’s not just about rural broadband any more – it’s about broadband throughout the UK. Our current government policies are immensely short-sighted and will cripple the national infrastructure of the UK, harming innumerable industries and businesses.