ANALYSIS & OPINION

UK rural broadband criticism 'unjustified'

Criticism of the UK Government's rural broadband programme lacks understanding, according to a telecommunications expert.

In light of the recent and less-than-enthusiastic Public Accounts Committee report on rural broadband, Matthew Howett, principal analyst for telecoms regulation at Ovum, explains how it raises valid concerns but also shows a lack of understanding of some of the basics.

He said that, while the Public Accounts Committee’s report and the recent National Audit Office investigation both raised important concerns with the government’s rural broadband programme, most of its 'more sensationalist claims' are unjustified or overlook some of the realities.

Howett said: 'A chief criticism is around BT being a near-monopoly. What the PAC seems to miss is the concept of competition for the market. Firstly it was never the intention to necessarily have lots of different firms rolling out broadband infrastructure in rural areas; rather, they should compete on price for the right to do so. By all accounts and purposes this is what has happened.

'Secondly, what rarely gets mentioned is that any publicly funded network must be opened up at the wholesale level in much the same way as the rest of BT’s network is, for other firms to come along and sell services to consumers at the retail level – another source of competition.'

Howett admits that the BDUK process has been 'far from plain sailing' and that some  of the criticisms are legitimate – for example, the way the UK was broken into many small regions. The 'rather lofty' initial objective of ‘the best superfast broadband in Europe’ was also far from ideal, he says, while mobile technology seems to have been disregarded for those especially hard to reach places.

'Nevertheless,' he continues, 'finding an example of a national broadband strategy that hasn’t gone without a hitch either in terms of delays or excessive cost is almost impossible. Initially critics believed the UK government lacked ambition and should have followed the lead of countries such as Australia, which abandoned the former monopoly in favour of an ambitious £20 billion fibre-to-the-home network. After years of delay and concerns about the cost, plans in Australia have been scaled back to deliver mostly fibre to the cabinet, but still at almost 10 times the cost of the UK project.

'To delay the spending of the remaining public money, as the PAC report recommends, is not the right thing to do at this stage. For too long the UK has been branded as being on a ‘low fibre’ diet and dogged by claims that consumers in rural areas will be condemned to the slow lane for years to come. Things have moved on immensely in the last couple of years, mostly as a result of the private money being spent by companies such as BT and Virgin Media. To halt the rural broadband process now would only serve to leave rural areas without the decent broadband speeds they deserve.'

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