Rolling out broadband

Last Friday, I had a meeting with Rutland County Council (RCC), to learn more about their broadband programme.

Some time ago, they called for bids from broadband companies, and have now struck a deal with BT.  Under the deal, broadband will be rolled out to all homes in the county — though only “to cabinet”.  That is, to the green junction boxes we see on pavements.  If the broadband signal gets from cabinet to home (or office) via the existing old-fashioned copper, some speed will be lost.  Companies or householders who want an optical fibre cable from home/office to cabinet, for optimum performance, will be free to put one in at their own expense.

The project will be funded (roughly speaking) 80% by the Council, and about 20% by EU funding, delivered via the British government from Brussels.  The Council element is expected to add between £9 and £15 a year to Council taxes.

Currently the project is delayed while Brussels and our government argue about the interpretation of EU State Aid rules.  (Memo to Brussels: this is our money we’re talking about.  You give us back a little of our own money; you tell us what we can do with it; and then you expect us to be grateful).

In the meeting, I wondered out loud whether universal provision on the rates (OK, it’s Council Tax now, but you know what I mean) is the right route to go.  We know that there are large numbers of homes, especially pensioners’ homes, where they don’t have a computer and don’t use broadband.  Yet those pensioners will still be hit with the hike in rates.

The Council argued that in the 21st Century, high-speed broadband was like roads — everyone needed them, so there should be universal provision by national/local government.  I questioned whether high-speed broadband should be compared instead to cable television.  You either subscribe to Sky, or you don’t (I don’t).  You can get the plain vanilla service free (or at lower cost), but you can buy the enhanced service if you chose to do so.

The arguments for universal service include the needs of school children, who do much of their homework using broadband, plus the needs of home-workers.  But presumably schools provide facilities for pupils, while employers should be able to subsidise broadband provision for home-workers.

RCC’s choice of universal service and BT as a partner excluded a number of smaller companies who wanted to be involved.  Both Brussels and the UK government spend a long time talking about the importance of smaller companies (SMEs, in the jargon), yet this kind of deal with a giant of the industry largely excludes them.  They may be able to pitch for the cabinet to home/office connection, but I’m not clear whether that provides a viable business model.  The BT route also enshrines a particular technical solution, and therefore creates barriers to entry for the more innovative and efficient technologies that will surely come in the future.

In this context, I was amused to note that the Tory MEP who also attended the meeting insisted on the universal-service model and dismissed the free-market alternative out-of-hand.  Odd to hear a Conservative rejecting a commercial solution and insisting on universal government provision funded by the tax-payer as the only way forward.

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8 Responses to Rolling out broadband

  1. Or alternatively opt for Virgin media which is already fibre optic delivery for most of the county and planned for the remainder soon ?? and no increase to council tax required ???

    • Rich Tee says:

      Don’t talk to me about Virgin Media. They are fine until you want to cancel the contract.

      It is like Hotel California: “You can check out but you can never leave.”

  2. Scaredypants says:

    Government provision- they will charge what they want and it will be easier for surveillance. Orwellian state is really on us isn’t it

  3. machokong says:

    Kids do NOT need FTTP/FTTH, they do not need fibre optic broadband speeds for Wikipedia, this is not true, not true at all. FTTP/FTTH should be a priority for all businesses and business premisses, but to the home is the home owners choice. What could be advocated is a fund for a street, so that if enough people on a street would like the enhanced service they could pool their money to better reach the desired level of funding.

    This would make more sense for the company fitting it and the street itself.

  4. Ilma630 says:

    My $2c…

    The argument about old folks not needing fibre is a little short-sighted. Infrastructure such as this needs to be deployed universally, as if it is selective, with will be near impossible and very expensive for individuals to install later. When the current ‘digital age’ people retire, they won’t just stop using the Internet, or Internet based media-on-demand/media-replay services, and will want them in the retirement flats/homes they move into. In fact, fibre can bring many additional benefits to the elderly (see below).

    As a village ‘Broadband Champion’ (and home worker), I see the need for all ages to be included, HOWEVER, we mush differentiate between the infrastructure and the services that run over it. The imperative for the nation is to replace the crumbling and antiquated copper network infrastructure (and the more recent but terrible-for-broadband aluminium) with a modern, future-proof fibre system for the 21st century. Laying this network is one of those cases where only central and local government intervention can ensure (mandate) that it happens to every premise. The network installation funded as such however only needs to go to a terminating box in or outside the premises (equivalent of the BT ‘master socket’), leaving the individual to select from the commercial ISPs to supply the fibre-router and connect the service.

    As for Council Tax, there is no reason why we cant provide pensioners with a ‘digital’ pass, just like a bus pass. Also, once the cost is repaid, the levy can be removed.

    There is a huge benefit for the government to push this forward, with central funding and regional management and support. For example, regional and international competitiveness, supporting rural communities, enabling much more effective home working and so removing some burden from the roads and public transport, improved social communication (especially for the elderly and less mobile), remote/tele-medicine for increased care for the elderly, remote learning, Internet delivery of gov’t services, etc. etc.

    It also hugely benefits companies like BT who deploy the fibre to the premises networks, as their maintenance costs then vastly reduce (an ex-BT CTO said several years ago, they could reduce it to 20% of current levels), with the corresponding increase in network reliability.

  5. David C says:

    “Odd to hear a Conservative rejecting a commercial solution and insisting on universal government provision funded by the tax-payer as the only way forward.”
    If only. It’s all too common under Cameron, but such statism wasn’t absent even under Thatcher.

  6. Ilma630 says:

    I would add… I’m NOT Labour or LibDem, and now also ex-Conservative. Guess what that leaves? Whilst looking to gov’t for an important piece of national infrastructure as this is the right thing to do (see this as a commercial solution on an international scale – we need to compete), the services delivered across the network should definitely not be a gov’t affair, but a truly private/commercial one.

  7. EU Sceptic says:

    “A publicly-owned internet project in South Yorkshire has reported heavy losses for the second year running, forcing councils in Sheffield, Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley to inject tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into the company and putting its financial future at risk.”

    http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/digital/2012/08/digital-region-50m-liability-taxpayers.html

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