Chris Middleton explains why the government’s latest announcement about rural broadband is welcome – but not what it appears to be.

A UK programme to roll out full-fibre, gigabit-capable broadband to remote rural locations in the UK has begun. According to an announcement from Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright, the “starting gun has been fired” on the first stage of the plan, known as the Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme.

The RGC is part of a government strategy to have nationwide full-fibre coverage by 2033. However, last summer, Whitehall admitted that only 90 percent of premises would be likely to receive gigabit-capable broadband by that date, with remote rural areas left struggling with low-speed, patchy – and in some cases non-existent – connections. As a result, the government is taking what it calls an ‘outside in’ approach to ensure that rural communities are not left behind in the national strategy.

According to the announcement from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS), the RGC is a two-year, £200 million programme, with an initial focus on sites in Cornwall, Cumbria, Northumberland, and Pembrokeshire. The government has identified 31 primary schools in these areas that will be early beneficiaries of the scheme. Additional sites in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and the rest of England will be announced in the coming months.

News that the government is specifically targeting rural areas with additional investment is welcome, as the risk of remote communities remaining cut off from the digital world has long been recognised as a problem – particularly as government services become more digital, including the tax and benefits systems.

However, the £200 million project is not quite what it seems. What the government is actually doing is upgrading some of its own buildings – government offices in remote locations – to full-fibre broadband, in the hope that these ‘hubs’ of high-speed connectivity will stimulate the local telecoms markets: hardly a bold national programme of full-fibre connections.

Under the scheme a ‘hub’ is a public sector building that is “deemed to be eligible for intervention” and aligns with qualifying criteria set by the Government’s Building Digital UK (BDUK) initiative. In this way, the surrounding area “can become increasingly viable for commercial intervention, stimulating the market to build more networks in these areas”, said DCMS.

In short, the government is investing in its own properties in the hope that the private sector will then step in – indeed, the words “can become increasingly viable” suggest that this outcome is far from certain or could leave captive residents paying a steep premium for services. There is also an implicit risk that local politics may be a factor in deciding which public sector buildings are – and are not – eligible for the scheme.

Wright said: “Our decision to tackle some of the hardest-to-reach places first is a significant shift in government policy and will be instrumental in delivering our plans for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033.

“Our rollout of superfast broadband transformed the UK’s digital landscape, and our modern Industrial Strategy is focused on investing in the infrastructure that will make Britain fit for the future.”

But will it? Despite the bold words and the government’s constant repetition of “superfast” in such announcements, it’s time for ministers to stop talking nonsense and face some tough global realities. Statistics reveal that the UK has among the slowest fixed-line broadband in the developed world, and is doing even worse in mobile access. And the reason is largely to do with greed and inaction by the very market forces that the government looks to for innovation and to bring citizens online.

According to the latest global indices provided by Speedtest.net, which publishes monthly assessments of the average fixed-line broadband speeds of 179 countries and the mobile broadband speeds of 138, the UK is languishing at 41st in the global league in fixed-line speeds, behind most of Asia, North America, and all of its Western European allies except Italy and Austria. In Eastern Europe, only Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic have slower broadband than the UK.

In mobile broadband, which the UK has largely been able to build without being hobbled by its legacy of ageing copper connections, the UK is barely in the top 50, languishing at 49.

As of September 2018, only six percent of UK premises had access to full-fibre connections, according to the government’s own figures, just two percent more than in the Spring. At that rate of progress – roughly four percent a year – the UK will only have two-thirds of premises connected to full-fibre broadband by 2033, the year when the government intends to have the entire nation hooked up.
But were the government somehow able to achieve its ambition, via programmes such as the RGC, 2033 is still 14 years in the future: a decade and a half for the UK to catch up with its bolder, faster competitors in Asia, North America, and Europe. That’s not good enough for one of the world’s leading economies, particularly in the context of Brexit.

A year ago, when ministers announced their intention to speed up the full-fibre programme, the UK was just outside the top 30 in Speedtest’s monthly fixed-line index, so the country’s standing has actually fallen since then.

The government’s current definition of “superfast” broadband has also long been a problem: 24.4 Mbps, against a global average of 58.66 Mbps, according to Speedtest.net. 24.4 Mpbs is roughly equivalent to the average top speed available in Kuwait, which is 82nd in the global league (as of April 2019). In a world of gigabit broadband, 24.4 Mpbs can hardly be described as “superfast”.
Last year, the UK government described the nation’s “superfast” broadband as one of the country’s great engineering achievements, a statement that was insulting to the millions of customers who are struggling with poor, unreliable connections. And as many of those customers know, the top speeds available on their contracts are only theoretical, with many paying for speeds they never receive from their copper or fibre-to-the-cabinet connections.

The problem facing digital UK is simple: the country may have a vibrant telecoms market, but providers are largely competing to provide services on an old, poorly maintained network – a last mile on its last breath. Meanwhile, BT and Openreach, which are largely responsible for the underlying infrastructure, have little or no commercial incentive to upgrade baseline services for everyone when they can charge businesses a premium for connections that may be more globally competitive.

Until the government addresses the real brake on the UK’s digital ambitions, BT and Openreach, the UK will be left far behind its competitors, a digital also-ran dominated by an arrogant infrastructure provider that has grown fat on its own inaction and appalling customer service.

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