What’s actually going on?

It still surprises me that after 18 months there seems to be confusion in the twittersphere about what is actually happening in terms of deployment and the goal of the ’s policy.

There have been conversations which seem to jump from a position that to every home is the only real solution to suggesting they are being short-changed by some mythical with nothing in between.

This is far from a simple binary mechanism – anyone who suggests “Fibre good, everything else bad” is at best badly misinformed. The debate is far too important to be stifled by this kind of mantra – it has to move on.

One of the great shifts in thinking within the industry has been to consider multiple solutions – gone are the days when ADSL won simply because it was the best solution to reach the widest audience. Now the best technology from a basket of possible solutions is becoming the norm.

So this is my attempt to make it all a little clearer – hopefully.

There are essentially two different government broadband policies:

  1. Basic broadband – To ensure everyone has access to at least 2 Mbps
  2. NGA broadband  - To make the UK the best superfast broadband market in Europe

Both policies are currently working towards 2015, and both are being delivered by BDUK. But, while the delivery of NGA broadband may have some impact on the basic broadband policy, they are essentially two different things – basic broadband is not NGA and vice versa! This is a simple undeniable fact.

The two EU Black/Grey/White models

The grid shows how these two different measures – NGA and basic broadband – are likely to play out in the UK. The purple area is where the commercial developments will focus, and the red is where the Government’s policy will have its key impact – the black boarder around the NGA White/Basic White is where the rural broadband fund will focus.

NGA Broadband

The definitions of NGA and superfast broadband are many and varied but essentially the Government’s goal is to deliver fibre to the cabinet to 90% of the population as a base reference offer – that is not the same as actually delivering FttC to 90%, only that this is the base upon which other solutions will be measured.

It means that a company wanting to bid into the framework will need to offer at least FttC but will be able to deliver FttP or anything else they can successfully argue delivers at least as much as FttC.

The EU currently views NGA as a fibre-based fixed-line solution and specifically excludes satellite and wireless solutions; it is highly likely that some microwave technologies will be included in future definitions if they deliver specific characteristics but unlicensed and light licensed solutions like WiFi are unlikely to be ever considered as NGA even if they deliver high speeds.

Any suggestion that satellite or BT’s BET are NGA is simply wrong, and I’ve never heard anyone in either BT or the satellite industry claim otherwise! Just ignore anyone who suggests they are, they simply aren’t credible.

The main NGA contenders today are FttC/VDSL and FttP in both point-2-point/Ethernet or PON variants.

Changes to NGA broadband in the UK

The two bar charts above attempt to show the impact of the Government’s policy on NGA broadband. Today there are commercial pledges to deliver a competitive physical infrastructure to at least 50% of the country, predominantly in the areas where Virgin Media are updating their network and BT is delivering their Infinity service.

In addition, BT has pledged to reach two-thirds of the country with an open-access wholesale service, making a further 17% Grey in the EU’s language. This leaves the “final third” where traditional commercial approaches begin to fail.

The Government’s aim is to extend the Grey area from 17% of the population to 40%, with only 10% of the population unlikely to see NGA services in the medium term.

Why only Grey? I find it difficult to see a case where the Government would invest in a competing NGA platform where one already exists but it is at least a theoretical possibility if the existing NGA service doesn’t deliver a whole service and is vertically integrated. As I’ve written before, if you run an NGA network and you don’t offer wholesale competition then you are carrying a risk that it is at least legal for the state to subsidise a competitor even if its poor value for public funds and probably unlikely to happen.

The focus of the £20m rural community broadband fund is on this final 10%, where communities are prepared to become more actively involved in a more ambitious plan.

Basic Broadband

Today its possible to argue that anything above 512 kbps might be classed as broadband; the Government is redefining that as 2 Mbps and that it should be as near universal as practicable.

Changes to basic broadband in the UK

The bar charts above show how today there are in fact two degrees of White basic broadband – there are those that currently receive a services above 2 Mbps but have no choice of provider, and those below 2 Mbps regardless of how much competition there may be at the telephone exchange. The Government’s policy is to remove the top White section, where services are less than 2 Mbps.

Some of this will be solved by the NGA plans – there are locations where the cabinet, as well as the premises, is a long way from the exchange. Evidence is already beginning to appear where BT is deploying Infinity in Hertfordshire with some homes now in an NGA Grey area when they were previously in a notspot – it is also the focus of organisations like Rutland Telecom.

Where the NGA policy won’t solve the notspot problem, the Government will intervene to ensure all premises are reasonably able to receive at least 2 Mbps.

In communities where the 2 Mbps offer doesn’t meet their ambition, the £20m rural community broadband fund may be able to help turn a basic broadband offer into a viable NGA plan where the community will exists.