Philip Virgo, a fellow member of my Livery Company, recently alerted me to a problem affecting ‘small & medium enterprises’ (SMEs) in our Ward and across the City, relating to the provision of fibre broadband services which many of us now take for granted in providing fast access to the internet and other online services. The issue also affects residents across the City, where they are served by exchanges that are not predominantly residential, such as in our Ward.
Unfortunately, it would appear that whist super fast fibre broadband is being rolled out to many rural areas through Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – the government body established to “to continue to improve the UK’s broadband network, with particular emphasis on making high-speed broadband available in rural communities” – many built up areas including London, are missing out on this vital modern utility.
The problem appears to be arising because those served by the Fleet, Faraday, Monument and Wood Street exchanges in the City, cannot get “Fibre to the Cabinet“, while those served by the Wood Street exchange cannot even get 21CN, which has been running since 2009 and is an older, limited technology.1
Definitely not infinity
The net result of this is that while many rural areas are getting very fast broadband, residents and SMEs in our Ward and City are stuck on very slow broadband, or are being forced to choose between other slower and less reliable services, or expensive “Fibre to the Premise” services which really isn’t a viable option for residents or SMEs.
More details can be found on Philip’s ComputerWeekly blogs:
How rural is Smithfield (London EC1)? Where is the final 10% which it is “uneconomic” for BT to upgrade?
BT to give fibre to the premises in Dolphinholme (Lancashire) but not fibre to the cabinet to Smithfield (London EC1)
Following a meeting with Philip, I wrote to Steve Bage who is the City’s ‘Strategic Infrastructure Advisor’, and part of the City Property Advisory Team (CPAT) – this is the team at Guildhall who are responsible for trying to ensure the City has what it needs in terms of utilities and infrastructure.
In his reply, he explained that the City had been “aware of this issue for some time”, and had discussed the problem with several SMEs in the City who cannot afford dedicated leased lines and have to rely instead on shared broadband services providing “contended bandwidth” – the more people online, the slower your connection. This basic broadband is often insufficient for business use, especially for those types of companies who have a large online presence, forcing some businesses to do their back-ups less frequently and overnight as they can take several hours due to inadequate connectivity.
The City – not a priority for BT
At a meeting with BT, they informed the CPAT that BT will not be installing Superfast Broadband services in the City as “the business case for doing so is predicated on the number of dwellings in the area”, and obviously with us ‘only’ having around 8,000 residents, BT view other areas in the UK as having a greater priority. BT also explained that the funding for Superfast Broadband is “largely exhausted” and that a contribution in the ‘low millions’ would be required in order to consider investing in the City.
This is partly due to “How BDUK bungled Britain’s next-gen broadband rollout“, allowing providers bidding for funding to cover only 90% of a given area with high-speed connections, and partly due to the bias towards rural communities. But there has also been an accusation that BT may be reluctant to enable Fibre to the Cabinet for certain exchanges, as this is likely to encourage businesses currently using those exchanges, to switch from other apparently more expensive BT services, such as existing leased lines.
This is an unacceptable situation. I believe that if we want the City to be an attractive place to live and work, and where our small and medium-sized City businesses can grow, we need reasonable access to all levels of connectivity.
Super Connected Cities, but only if you have a voucher and can keep up the payments
Obviously, at a time when savings are having to be found across the board, the City does not have any funding for such services itself. However, Steve Bage also informed me that he has been working with the GLA in this area, who have a “Super Connected Cities” fund of £30m to bring faster broadband to London. The London Boroughs, along with the CPAT for the City, recently sent out a survey to assess areas of need across London, and the GLA plans to use the funding to offer SMEs a £3,000 “voucher” which would cover the cost of the installation of “enhanced broadband”, with SMEs picking up the on going costs.
I’ve yet to find out exactly what “enhanced broadband” means, but I believe this could be FTTP or a leased line of some sort. Even if this scheme gets off the ground, it’s unclear at this stage which telecoms providers could offer a suitable product. Regardless of these efforts, the question remains around who will pay for the wider enabling costs of bringing FTTC to the City and London.
The GLA expects to know more in October, and at the same time the CPAT is in discussions with the City’s 13 telecoms providers to assess whether they would be willing to provide a high bandwidth affordable service for SMEs. A report will be written and circulated to Chief Officers and the Town Clerk in late October, and I will continue to take an active interest in this issue.
I’m sure that many of us online would love to have a faster broadband connection, and there are a whole host of issues that can affect the speed and quality of the service received, but we need to ensure a level playing field is in place, and that real competition is able to deliver the range of services needed in the City. If you are a resident or SME that is unable to receive the broadband service you need, please get in touch.
1 This is according to SamKnows, a global broadband measuring site, generally regarded as the source for such information.