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Superfast broadband: Fibre hubs to connect rural communities

Government adds £300m to the superfast broadband kitty...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Government adds £300m to the superfast broadband kitty...

The government is making an extra £300m available for superfast broadband - taking the total to £830m over seven years - with the aim of making high-speed internet access available even in remote and rural parts of the UK.

In a document entitled Britain's Superfast Broadband Future, published today, the government proposes putting a "digital hub" - aka fibre to the cabinet broadband, supporting download speeds of up to 40Mbps - in "every community in the UK" by 2015.

Companies, local authorities and local communities would then be responsible for the onward connections to individual premises if they want to increase speed further. For example, full fibre to the home supports speeds of up to 100Mbps.

"Our aim is to ensure every community has a point to which fibre is delivered, capable of allowing the end connection to the consumer to be upgraded - either by communities themselves, or since this will make the business case more viable, industry itself might choose to extend the network to the premise," the document said. "We also want to ensure communities have the opportunity to further extend the reach of the network where demand exists."

Superfast broadband networks could be extended beyond the so-called digital hubs using a variety of technologies, the document notes, such as full fibre to the home, wireless networks or even community-managed femtocells to the network.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed the government is not setting a particular speed floor for superfast broadband, although it remains committed to the 2Mbps universal service commitment in areas where superfast broadband cannot be delivered.

The government has also announced a second wave of market-testing pilots - on top of the four previously announced pilots - to explore how community digital hubs will work in practice, setting aside £50m from the broadband pot to fund these trials.

The pilots' locations will be determined next year when local authorities will be invited to submit proposals to bid for funding, according to the DCMS. The Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire were chosen for the original four pilots.

Superfast broadband: Government announces fibre to the cabinet for every community

Superfast broadband: The government has announced fibre to the cabinet for "every community"
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

In October the coalition announced £530m of BBC licence fee and digital switchover underspend would be used to help extend next-generation broadband access within the current parliament. A further £300m will now be made available by 2017 for further extending superfast broadband access, it was confirmed today. The additional money will come from the BBC licence fee.

The coalition has previously pledged that the UK would have the "best superfast broadband network in Europe" by 2015. Today's superfast broadband document confirms it will use a broadband "scorecard" to measure this pledge, using speed, coverage, price and choice as its "four headline indicators" - although it does not go into any more detail about the four criteria.

The European Commission's Broadband Strategy has set out a target for all EU citizens to have access to at least 30Mbps by 2020 - a target the government's report describes as "challenging".

Tim Johnson, chief analyst at broadband watcher Point Topic, broadly welcomed the government's plans but warned there are likely to be concerns about the competitive landscape of superfast broadband if BT bids for and gets all the funding, leaving other backhaul providers out in the cold.

"That seems to be to be one potential issue with it," he said. "Objections will stream in from various players who are hoping to do this sort of thing themselves."

There are also questions about how the government defines a "community". Households would need to be within 600 metres of a digital hub to be within "effective range" of the fibre connection, to support speeds of about 25Mbps, according to Johnson. "One of the things that is clear is that the 2Mbps universal service commitment idea has more or less met its end," he said. "Nobody's going to invest in giving people just 2Mbps."

Even speeds of circa 25Mbps would make for a superfast broadband network that's "a bit ordinary" by 2015, the analyst added.

Another risk could be a new digital divide opening up, Johnson said. While some communities will be prosperous enough to connect premises in their community to the digital hub, there could be "an awful lot of communities just too poor and too busy earning a living" to do it, he said.

The government's broadband report also flags up the business rating of fibre networks, noting that a number of telecoms companies have called for changes to the rating system, which is set by the Valuation Office Agency. The current fibre rating regime is "extremely favourable" to BT, according to Point Topic's Johnson.

"If there's not a level playing field in that respect, the government could end up being taken to the European Court," he added. "The EU law is very competition-oriented and if you do something that inherently favours one player rather than another then legal redress is a possibility."

However, the government defends the current fibre rating system, noting it has been "extensively litigated in the UK and European courts".

"It is right that non-domestic property should continue to be taxed to provide the essential public services we all rely on," the report states, adding: "Decisions relating to one form of infrastructure would have implications for the system of rates as applied to other infrastructure."

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