UK superfast broadband roll-out faces setbacks
May 17, 2011 | Tim Johnson
Britain’s ambitions to have the best superfast broadband in Europe have been hit by a double blow over the past six months according to leading broadband analysts Point Topic.
The roll-out of next-generation broadband technology by BT and alternative networks has lagged a long way behind plans and take-up of the services where they are available has been sluggish.
Research by Point Topic shows that its “Broadband Infrastructure Index”, an overall measure of broadband coverage and prospects, has actually gone backwards, falling from 55% to 53% in the period. Meanwhile the number of customers signing up for superfast broadband has been below target in many areas.
Point Topic believes that BT will catch up on its plans over the next year or two and forecasts that superfast broadband will be available to two-thirds of all the homes and businesses in the UK by the end of 2015. But the forecast for superfast broadband lines in use by then has been cut from 8.8m to 6.7m. (These figures are for superfast broadband over existing telephone networks or new fibre ones. They do not include superfast services over Virgin Media’s cable network.)
Tim Johnson, Chief Analyst at Point Topic, suggests that in these circumstances community initiatives to provide better broadband can play a very important role. He said:
“Alternative networks are finding the going quite hard at the moment. They’re in danger of being sidelined by BT and the big ISPs. But these initiatives could play a vital part in creating demand for superfast broadband to the great benefit of local communities.”
The reasons for the setback are clear. BT’s rollout of next-generation access services (“superfast broadband”) reached only 182 exchanges by the end of 2010 rather than the 343 which had been projected. Fibrecity’s ambitious plans to provide Bournemouth and Dundee with fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) collapsed. Many more firmly-founded alternative networks (altnets) cut back on their own roll-out plans, faced with the economic realities of providing superfast broadband.
At the same time, experience with actual demand where services are available, or likely to be, showed the huge potential importance of community initiatives for raising interest in superfast broadband. The “Race to Infinity” competition, where people could vote to get BT’s superfast broadband in their area, got an excellent response where there was a strong community campaign but little or nothing elsewhere. Six exchange areas got a 100% vote for having superfast, and a handful more over 60%, but this was a tiny proportion of the thousands of exchange areas concerned.
The same experience is being repeated in BT exchange areas where superfast services are already available. In areas where there is special interest for some reason, take-up is high. In many more the level is rather disappointing.
“This shows the key role which community initiatives have to play in getting the UK wired up to superfast broadband,” Mr Johnson added. “Even if they never get to build an independent network they can prod BT into taking action and make them offer cheaper solutions. But it may be even more important that they turn people on to the benefits of superfast broadband, and get them interested and using it.”
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