The British Infrastructure Group of MPs (BIG) which is comprised of 57 MPs (only one of which is Scottish) has launched the Broadband 2.0 study to examine the delivery of broadband speeds throughout the UK. The report aims to present the UK Government, industry regulator Ofcom and broadband suppliers with a series of recommendations to improve broadband delivery.
But the report is damning of the current state of UK broadband connectivity, claiming that as many as 6.7 million UK customers do not receive the proposed minimum standard speeds of 10 megabits (Mb/s) – called for in the Universal Service Obligation (USO). The report also calls for increased transparency from the industry, as the 6.7 million figure – reached by Ofcom – does not take into account customers who do not actually receive the broadband speed they pay for and is likely to be significantly higher.
Grant Shapps MP, who chairs the BIG, said: “It is unacceptable that businesses and homeowners alike still can’t receive fast Internet, and the lack of minimum standards in the sector represents a worrying picture for post-Brexit Britain’s competitiveness.”
Scotland Worst For Broadband Speeds
Scotland fairs particularly poorly in the report, with four out of the five worst-performing parliamentary constituencies in the north of the country, beaten only by Carmarthen East & Dinefwr in Wales:
- Carmarthen East & Dinefwr
- Ross, Skye & Lochaber
- Na h-Eileanan an Iar
- Orkney & Shetland
- Argyll & Bute
In Ross, Lochaber and the Isle of Skye only 65.5 % of connections reach the minimum standard specified by USO.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government contested that the Digital Scotland Broadband programme, which commits to delivering fibre broadband to at least 95% of residences in Scotland by the end of 2017, is on track. They also noted that the Scottish Government is committed to delivering superfast broadband to all Scottish homes by 2021.
The spokesperson told the BBC: “This is the most ambitious commitment in the UK – focusing on delivery of speeds over 30 Mb/s – whilst there is still no clarity from the UK government on how they intend to implement the proposed USO for broadband – which will deliver just 10 Mb/s.”
BT Universal Broadband Commitment
The issue has become more complex with a recent offer from BT to invest up to £600 million in providing speeds of up to 10 Mb/s to 99% of UK residences by 2022. According to BT, this would be through a combination of technologies including fibre and fixed wireless, with less than 1% of customers receiving wireless via satellite, rather than built infrastructure.
However, Labour’s shadow culture secretary Tom Watson said that the 10Mb/s target was low and warned that customers must not be forced to pay more: “Families and businesses in areas without the minimum speed may see some hope in this announcement, but they will be rightly wary that they will be forced to pay the price in extra or hidden charges. That would not be acceptable and the government must take that into account.
“Businesses will also be concerned that the 10 Mbp/s minimum broadband speed will be outdated and inadequate before it is even fully delivered. Rather than choose an ambitious broadband speed the government went with the cheapest, which will leave us running to catch up with digital developments for years to come.”
DIGIT reached out to BT for clarification on the matter. According to a spokesperson from BT, their offer – titled the Universal Broadband Commitment (UBC) – will still attempt full-coverage of the UK at the previously proposed rate of 10 Mb/s, but will cut the legislative red-tape by circumventing public subsidies and rolling out through the business itself. If its offer is accepted, BT will communicate with Ofcom on how the costs will be recouped, likely through its products on the wholesale market.
The spokesperson told DIGIT: “The universal service offer from BT is designed to help deliver the government’s objective to ensure that everyone in the UK is able to access a good broadband service of at least 10 Mb/s. Many councils, local authorities and devolved governments are of course keen to ensure that as many of their citizens can access at least a superfast service and thus ensure all the economic benefits that research shows flows from such services are available across their regions as soon as possible. BT’s offer is not a substitute for these superfast economic benefit ambitions.”
Impact On Businesses In Scotland
Both offers are now under consideration. Stuart Mackinnon, External Affairs Manager of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland welcomed any proposals that might improve Scotland’s digital infrastructure.
He said: “We polled our members immediately after last year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections and asked them what their priorities would be for the for the next Scottish Government. ‘Improving Scotland’s digital infrastructure’ was the second-top priority for Scottish small businesses. I don’t think that’s changed. I think while there’s no doubt that the picture, generally, is that infrastructure is improving in Scotland, but is it improving fast enough to match both businesses and consumers expectations, and are we keeping up with our neighbours?”
The lack of broadband infrastructure in Scotland remains a serious problem for some FSB members according to Stuart: “One of our members in the rural north in Sutherland – a hotelier – has a satellite broadband connection. They are paying quite a lot but they regularly exhaust their data. Customers come in with their kids, and there’s no mobile coverage, so they all connect up to the wifi, update their devices, and then watch movies or stream music. If they use up all the bandwidth, that hotelier can’t conduct other business transactions over the course of the day. People’s expectations are shifting so quickly that it is difficult for the telecom companies to keep up.”
Stuart recommended businesses keep up to date with their local capabilities: “Sometimes the nearest green box is upgraded and some businesses don’t know they can access superfast broadband. But there’s various online checkers which you can use to see if your network’s been upgraded. I think there also good advice by Digital Scotland and others about what you can do to boost your speed without necessarily upgrading, like managing what devices you want on your network.
“For small businesses: if you’re frustrated, we have asked the Scottish Government to provide premise by premise details for the next broadband programme. What we want is accurate information for firms to be able to make business decisions, because we know that for a share of our members this is an important issue – if it’s going to be 2021 instead of 2018/2019 then they might adjust their outlook.
Mobile Coverage Overlooked
Stuart also stressed mobile signal coverage remains a major issue for many businesses. An issue he says is often sidelined in favour of broadband. He said: “An enormous bugbear for our members generally is mobile coverage. Mobile operators highlight that good progress is going to be made with the wider rollout of 4G, but I think that many of our members are deeply frustrated by Scotland’s current mobile coverage levels. We’re frustrated by the lack of detail regarding when individual premises will get broadband, but even more frustrated about the lack of detail about when individual parts of the country might be able to order a taxi on their mobile.
“We’re spending a vast amount of money ‘dualling’ the A9, [but] to complement that investment it will be vital for visitors to the country to be able to look up on their phones to decide where they’re going to go for a spot of lunch or where to stay overnight. I think that fixing Scotland’s poor mobile coverage is a real top priority for Scotland’s small firms.”