By Mark Jackson, ISPreview | July 3rd, 2014

The Government’s Communications Minister, Edward Vaizey (MP), has today told the House of Commons that the money they’ve already allocated should “give us the figure we need to get to 100%” (coverage of superfast broadband connectivity). We remain to be convinced.

At present the £1.2bn Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme and related projects aim to make fixed line superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services available to 95% of the population by 2017, which should rise to 99% by 2018 when you include Mobile Broadband and other wireless solutions. Councils and private operators (e.g. BT) are also expected to match-fund with the central money pot.

But if today’s comments are anything to go by then those hoping for more funding to push fixed line “superfast” connectivity out to reach 100% of the United Kingdom may be left disappointed.

Thursday’s House of Commons Debate – Broadband

Question – Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Labour):
This issue is not just a rural problem. At my recent business event, companies told me how lack of access to fast broadband is seriously hampering their businesses. How will the Minister ensure that areas on the edge of major urban centres also get superfast broadband?

Answer – Mr Vaizey:
The whole point of the rural broadband programme is to help the areas she speaks about. Local councils are in charge of the roll-out, so they should know best where the money should go first for the most impact. As I say, we have had phase 1 to get to 90%; we now have phase 2 to get to 95%; and the money we have allocated for new technologies will give us the figure we need to get to 100%.

Leaving aside the fact that BDUK has never been a rural specific programme (example), the response given my Mr Vaizey suggests that the Government will deliver 100% coverage of superfast broadband within their existing strategy. The implication of this is that those in the final 5% will probably not receive much in the way of improvement to their existing fixed line connectivity and might instead have to look more towards mobile, fixed wireless and satellite solutions for their future needs (note: the 5% is a national figure, but it can still vary from county to county).

It’s also unclear what Vaizey means by money for “new technologies“, although we suspect that’s a reference to the new £10m Innovation Fund. The fund is about to conduct eight different pilot schemes across the UK to “test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas“, but it could take more than this to ensure true 100% coverage is achieved.

At the same time it’s very important to remember that most of the targets are based on estimates of expected performance and, as most people will know by now, real-world speeds often differ dramatically from what ISPs predict. Issues with poor home wiring and network congestion, among many other things, often conspire to deliver a less capable connection than expected. So it’s possible that the Government might be able to fudge their way to 100% but in reality there will always be gaps.

Meanwhile the Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, Eric Ollerenshaw, complained about BT’s “virtual monopoly in contracts for superfast broadband” and called for an inquiry into its performance. Vaizey responded by saying, “The National Audit Office conducted an inquiry. I am confident that BT is doing its job incredibly effectively. We are passing a total of 20,000 premises a week with broadband, and that figure will soon be up to 40,000 a week. More than £60 million has been allocated to Lancashire and more than 130,000 homes there will get superfast broadband as a result.” We recall the NAO report being somewhat mixed (here).

Separately Vaizey also confirmed that more than 160,000 premises in Wales have now been passed with BT’s “fibre broadband” network as part of the Superfast Cymru scheme, which is up from a figure of 135,000 reported in June 2014 (here).

UK Government Targets 100% Superfast Broadband Coverage
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