Yesterday the Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey appealed for the UK public to contribute ideas for the next five years worth of digital policy in Great Britain.
One of the commitments he made as part of his request was to encourage the foundations of super-fast broadband for all:
On connectivity we’re on track to deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2017 – and we’re planning to make it a legal right for every home and business in the UK to request fast broadband. But fixed broadband is just part of the solution. We’re working to make Internet access ubiquitous, so everyone can access it whenever and wherever they need it.
Given Vaizey’s focus here, it’s fitting perhaps that this request for fresh ideas should come out only days after BT CEO Gavin Patterson contributed an editorial to The Daily Telegraph in which he declares that 2016 will be the year in which the UK determines its digital fate. He boasts:
BT has been building the fabric of the UK’s communications network for over a century. In the past decades, we have spent tens of billions maintaining and upgrading the networks we operate.
We know this work never stops. In fact, the rate of investment by the telecoms industry needs to get even faster. Demand for data on our network has grown on average by 40pc every year for the last decade and we see no signs of that slowing down.
To meet that demand, in the last 10 years alone we have invested £20bn in upgrading our networks, including £3bn in a nationwide fibre broadband roll-out. This means that more than 80pc of the country has access to fibre broadband with more communities being connected every day. If we include competitors’ fibre networks, Britain already has over 90pc coverage of fibre broadband, far ahead of the majority of our international peers.
With the right regulatory framework in place, 2016 should see Britain move into the next phase of the investment that industry needs.
At BT, we hope to build on our co-investment with the Government in rural areas to get beyond the current target of 95pc of UK premises being able to access fibre broadband services by the end of 2017.
Jolly good. Except the reality doesn’t quite match up to that.
A personal problem
I don’t live in a rural area. I live right in the center of Brighton, a city on the south coast of the UK, a city that pitches itself as Silicon Beach.
And I can’t get vaguely-fast broadband, never mind super-fast.
I pay BT for an up-to-20mb connection and on a good day, with a fair wind behind me, I manage to get up to the towering speed of 5mb! Other residents in the area report never being over 2.5 or 3mb, so I should perhaps be grateful that I’m even scaling these giddy heights.
As I live in a listed building, BT is the only option as a network provider as cable providers can’t get permission to install necessary equipment. The only alternative is to look at installation of rooftop radio masts, an expensive proposition beyond the reach of most residential customers.
The listed building aspect of this is, of course, a personal circumstance and my own choice to live there, but there is a wider issue here. Not all the buildings in this area are listed, but they all have one thing in common: indifference from BT when it comes to delivering anything like a respectable broadband service.
Despite sending constant leaflets urging people in our postcode to upgrade to Infinity super-fast broadband, when you go on the BT website to order, you’re told it’s not available in our area - in the center of a major city.
More to the point, having spoken to a commendably candid BT OpenReach engineer working in the street outside, there’s apparently “b**ger all chance” of us being added to the Infinity program any time soon as, according to BT’s records, we - and the 150 or so other houses/flats in our street - do not in fact live in a residential area! In other words, computer says no.
Or rather, computer says no, unless you’re prepared to cough up for a private installation of fiber as some local hotels have done. Oh yes, once you’ve cut BT a big enough cheque, the Infinity vans will be round digging up the road and plumbing you up to a super-fast connection just fine.
On the other hand, if you’re a residential BT customer, forget it. But it's those residential customers that Vaizey and the current government want to be delivering essential services to via digital platforms - and that means having a robust broadband connection in place, not one that grinds to a juddering halt as soon as the west coast of the USA wakes up.
I’ve heard similar tales from other parts of the country. It’s a major flaw in the digital strategy of the UK. David Wilde, CIO at Essex County Council, made the point at the Think Cloud for Government conference a couple of years ago that when there are areas of Essex that struggle even to get a mobile phone signal, the prospect of mission-critical, citizen-centric services being delivered via digital channels or the cloud falls down.
The BT problem
BT’s had a stranglehold over the nation’s network infrastructure since privatisation. That’s not the company’s fault. It was handed to it on a plate and never really had to try - and in the early post-privatisation years, it most certainly did not.
Things have improved of course, but still in 2015 we have the horror stories around the challenge of just getting broadband installed at all in many cases.
When I moved in to my current apartment, there was a working BT broadband connection in place. There was also a working gas connection and a working electricity connection.
I phoned up the gas company and the account was put into my name.
I phoned up the electricity company and the account was put into my name.
I phoned up BT…and they switched off the working broadband connection and told me it would be a couple of weeks before it could be reconnected and an account opened in my name.
Why? Why couldn’t I just switch the existing account into my name like I could with any other utility?
BT customer service - I use the term ‘customer service’ in its loosest form here, you understand - had the answer:
Broadband is not a utility, sir - and it never will be.
And there you have the fundamental problem summed up. In a digitally-dependent age, the UK's primary network infrastructure provider does not regard broadband as a utility.
I don’t believe Gavin Patterson thinks that. For the record, I've found Patterson to be personally very responsive when contacted directly.
But I do think far too many of his employees do. (But then according to my chatty OpenReach engineer, he is one of only a handful of “proper” broadband installation people. The majority, he claimed, are former phone line installation staff who’ve been rebranded!)
Anyway, Ed Vaizey is now going to give me the legal right to “request” fast broadband.
OK, Mr Patterson - take this as my request please. As the owner of a residential property slap-bang in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the south coast of England and an existing, long-term BT customer, I request a fast broadband connection in 2016.
And if you’re going to turn down that request, then tell your marketing goons to stop sending me useless leaflets on the wonders of Infinity because it's just coming across as deliberate taunting now!
Not holding my breath.