Government “in thrall” to BT over fibre rollout

A Lords committee has attacked the UK’s broadband strategy and called for a shake-up of the way fibre networks are run.


The UK risks leaving large swathes of the country on substandard connections, according to a report from the Select Committee on Communications, thwarted by a system that places too much emphasis on speed targets and leaves government-funded projects “in thrall to the commercial interests of private enterprise”.

The report concluded that the way the UK’s broadband investment has been allocated – including the $530m from Broadband Delivery UK – meant it was not competitive. BT and Fujitsu are the only two companies left bidding for government funding, with only BT winning any bids to date.

“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy,” said committee chairman Lord Inglewood.

Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy

“The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”

Under the current strategy, local regions have put together plans, which need to be approved by BDUK. Local councils then negotiate with suppliers – with only BT and Fujitsu in the running for projects – as to which company will conduct the rollout work.

The result had been a focus on the government’s goals of more the 24Mbits/sec for 90% of homes, with 2Mbits/sec for everyone else – with the majority of services built on fibre to the cabinet technology using BT’s infrastructure.

The Lords said only a nationwide fibre network would prevent a widening digital divide and the committee called for a change of direction, with a focus on a “national network bringing open access fibre-optic hubs within reach of every community”.

According to the report, open access to these fibre-optic hubs “would provide a platform for local communities and businesses to access the broadband provision they want in the short term, and to upgrade that access flexibly as needs evolve over time””.

The committee called for greater access to dark fibre on an open basis, as laid out by the EU, but open fibre hubs still leave the question of who builds the network from there.

BT response
BT, the early winner in terms of contracts awarded, dismissed the report, saying the idea of extending the network was already covered in its plans.

“This report calls for fibre broadband to be brought within reach of as many communities as possible via an open network,” BT said in a statement. “That is already happening with BT making fibre available to a further four million homes alone whilst the committee has deliberated.

“This new network – which already passes 11 million homes and which will soon pass millions more – is open to all ISPs on an equal basis and more than 50 ISPs are using it.”

The company also pointed to rules aimed at giving rival providers access to its ducts and poles for running their own fibre.

“Companies can also lay their own fibre using BT’s ducts and poles should they wish so there is plenty of room for competition,” BT said. “This level of open access is unparalleled in Europe and so the UK is well placed to have one of the best super-fast networks in the continent by 2015.”

Speed kills

The Lords also claimed the focus on speeds effectively ruled out areas without fibre connections from any government funding, because technologies that fall short of the 24Mbits/sec were vetoed.

“We recommend that future broadband policy should not be built around precise speed targets end-users can expect to receive in the short-term, however attractive these may be for sloganeers,” the report said.

“The refusal to provide financial support for a project, like that in the Northern Fells, on the grounds that its proposal to use a technology (in this case white space spectrum) which would not meet the government’s speed targets, is a further illustration of the way in which such targets are actually counter-productive.”

Competition doubts

The report also raised doubts over the role of BDUK and said the lack of competition within the system meant that councils could be in a weaker position when dealing with suppliers, such as BT and Fujitsu.

“The danger that results from the lack of competitive pressure in the construction of the UK’s broadband infrastructure lies in the fact that the government can easily find itself in thrall to the commercial interests of private enterprise, and therefore unable to direct broadband infrastructure in the wider interests of the UK.”

BT has, for example, won the only projects to have been given the green light and is, in some areas, the only company bidding to win the contracts.

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