Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Broadband Services in Wales

The House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee this week published Broadband Services in Wales (PDF version here), the results of its inquiry into current and future broadband availability in Wales (coverage from ISP Review here; also see this previous post for more on broadband policy in Wales). The report identifies a number of issues of concern, both in relation to Wales specifically and UK broadband policy as a whole. In relation to broadband availability in Wales:
"Over a number of years, the availability of broadband has been consistently lower in Wales than the UK average. However, according to Ofcom, that gap has narrowed in recent years following investment by the private sector and through the efforts of the Welsh Government. We are concerned, however, that Ofcom figures for 2012 show that the gap between Wales and the UK has widened again."
Though interestingly Wales is ahead of the UK in terms of mobile broadband in some ways:
"Wales has the highest mobile broadband take-up in UK with 16% of the country's properties having access to mobile broadband, with south east Wales being a “hot-spot” for mobile broadband usage with 18% of households using the technology compared to 15% in England...Overall the uptake of mobile broadband in Wales has increased significantly in recent years. In Wales as a whole, 16% of people used mobile broadband as their primary means of accessing the internet."
Presumably "having access to mobile broadband" in fact means "has mobile broadband", indicating take-up rather than availability (I would imagine mobile broadband is available to significantly more that 16% of properties in Wales). The reports notes the ambitious targets that have been set for broadband in Wales:
"The Welsh Government’s broadband strategy is even more ambitious than the UK Government’s and its stated aim is to develop a broadband infrastructure “capable of delivering fast and ultra-fast broadband services to all premises in Wales”. Under its plans every business in Wales would have access to next-generation broadband at a minimum speed of 30 mbps by “the middle of 2016 and domestic premises by 2020”."
However the report expresses a concern that those currently unable to access broadband should be prioritised over achieving the widest possible availability of superfast services:
"We are concerned that too much focus may have been placed on the roll-out of superfast broadband at the expense of ensuring that the needs of those without any broadband service at all are met. The first priority must be to ensure that the needs of the approximately 90,000 homes in Wales which currently do not have access to broadband are addressed as soon as possible. The Government’s ambitions for superfast broadband must not be at the expense of delivering a good broadband service for all."
The report also suggests that more needs to be done in relation to BT's physical infrastructure access (PIA)/duct and pole sharing provisions, to help drive competition and availability in rural areas:
"While we welcome Ofcom’s efforts to open up the access to BT’s ducts and poles in Wales to other providers, we are concerned that it has not yet gone far enough in ensuring access is available at a reasonable cost. We call on Ofcom to increase its efforts in this area."
Evidence provided to the inquiry by Three underlined the importance of mobile broadband for Wales:
"...concern was expressed that the (4G) auction had been delayed on at least two occasions and that the delay was holding back the roll-out of broadband particularly as other European countries had already held similar auctions and handed out contracts. According to Three this was further evidence that the Government considered mobile broadband to be a ‘complementary’ service to fixed broadband whereas according to that company mobile broadband is the fastest growing part of the broadband sector and is predicted by 2015 to provide more access to the internet than fixed lines."
The report goes on to recommend that the forthcoming 4G auction should result in 4G services being available "to at least 98% of people in Wales." Satellite technologies also are of potential benefit, and should be investigated further:
"Satellite broadband is a practical alternative to fixed line and mobile broadband. Although we received conflicting evidence regarding the performance and cost of satellite broadband, we received very persuasive evidence that for very difficult-to-reach areas it might be the best solution for Wales, as it has been for Scotland. We recommend that Ofcom undertake a study to evaluate whether satellite broadband should be supported more vigorously in Wales."
The concern about prioritising not spots over superfast roll-outs was echoed by Arqiva in its written contribution to the inquiry, included as one of the appendices to the report:
"There is an ever-greater social and economic cost to each person who falls, or is left behind on the wrong side of this “digital divide”. Research suggests that consumers and SMEs left without broadband would be disproportionately rural… and disproportionately Welsh. The overriding public policy objective must be to deliver universal access to broadband. It is therefore crucial that the political commitment to achieving universal access to broadband by 2015 is not lost in the heated arguments about who should receive “superfast” broadband first…and how. The real gain for UK plc is to achieve universal access to broadband - not to push fibre to 90% penetration and then stop."
Arqiva sees fixed wireless solutions as the most cost effective option for rural areas:
"Where fibre is not cost effective (ie more than 1 million households), we believe wireless broadband is the only practical solution. No roads need to be dug up, no ducts shared (not that there are many in rural areas anyway), wireless broadband could be deployed quickly and offered to all consumers within range of each transmitter as soon as it was switched on—just like television, in fact...television provides the optimal spectrum to use because as Arqiva switches off analogue television across the UK as part of Digital SwitchOver (Wales has, of course, already been switched), a swathe of spectrum (usually referred to as “800 MHz”) which is harmonised across Europe for “4G” wireless broadband is left behind unused. So unlike the few rural wireless broadband solutions offered to date, the spectrum is ideal for this use (having previously provided universal public service television); the infrastructure is already in place; and consumers could choose from a range of cheap, standardised equipment. The effectiveness of using 800 MHz spectrum to deploy 4G wireless broadband in rural areas was modelled for Ofcom and Arqiva in 2009 and, at the end of 2010, Arqiva borrowed some of this spectrum from Ofcom and carried out an extensive 4G trial. This trial was carried out in Pembrokeshire, which was selected precisely because it would be difficult and highly costly for fibre to address its rural “not spots”, and yielded very impressive results. We were able to demonstrate delivery of high speed broadband (in excess of 50 Mbps) in a challenging rural environment where citizens currently experience typical speeds which are less than 500 Kbps..."
More on the Arqiva 4G trial in Preseli here, here and here. Geo and FiberSpeed's contribution provides more information on the issues with BT's current PIA provision:
"...the industry believes that the current arrangements and pricing of the offer will not achieve the aims, in particular the following key issues need to be addressed:
  • Initial pricing is not reflective of the cost to BT and does not make the product commercially viable.
  • Restrictions on use for leased lines to businesses substantially reduces the services available and investment return.
  • Restrictions on use for Fixed or Wireless backhaul substantially reduces the services available and investment return.
Until a viable PIA product is agreed and available, there is likely to be slow progress on the roll-out of new NGA networks. From the experience of the introduction of Local Loop Unbundling products, which took two years to develop, thus early conclusion of the current negotiations is unlikely and it is likely that Ofcom will be required to formally regulate. Delays to the agreements on PIA may impact the success and benefits of the BDUK pilots."
Finally, Virgin Media's contribution describes another successful trial in Wales:
"In July 2010, Virgin Media announced a trial agreement with Surf Telecom to use the electricity distribution network in Crumlin, Caerphilly as the first UK trial of ultrafast broadband delivered over existing electricity poles. The trial—which took place throughout the remainder of the year—delivered a 50Mbps connection to residents in Crumlin, a ten-fold increase on what the community had previously received through the existing legacy copper infrastructure. The deployment allowed residents in the village to connect directly to Virgin Media’s fibre optic network...Virgin Media’s experience to date, through trialling of overhead deployment and constructive discussions with electricity providers, is that innovative commercial partnerships could see this model replicated on a wider basis. To achieve such an industrialised approach to utility infrastructure, Virgin Media has made representations to government that the following changes to the current regulatory structure governing overhead deployment are required:
  • Greater clarity to utility network operators about the financial rewards for utility companies in entering infrastructure sharing agreements.
  • Streamlining of the planning process under the Electronic Communications Regulations - removing duplication in the notification requirements that significantly add to the time and resources required at a local authority level for approval.
  • Clarity over the provisions under the Electronic Communications Code in relation to transparency and certainty in the way in which wayleave payments are calculated. Virgin Media does not dispute the right of landowners to seek consideration for communications cables crossing land, but in doing so, the process should be resolved in a timely and certain manner. We would like to see RICS carry out a review of the current wayleave calculation methodology to provide fresh certainty over the rights of landowners and communications providers."
More on Virgin Media's Crumlin trial here and here.

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