Telecoms in 2012: A successful year for the UK… in playing catch-up.

By Sooraj Shah
19 Dec 2012 View Comments

The UK's "superfast" broadband rollout rumbled on throughout 2012, with BT recently bringing forward the fibre rollout completion date to spring 2014 – 18 months ahead of schedule. It said that some 12 million premises are covered by superfast broadband, with just under one million already connected to the network.

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But despite the rollout progressing faster than expected, it has been criticised on a number of fronts: for not covering rural parts of the UK; covering the UK with fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) rather than fibre-to-the-premise (FTTH); its definition of ‘superfast'; and for the lack of another provider such as Fujitsu to act as a counterweight to BT.

In July, a House of Lords Communications Committee report said that the government's fixation on delivering certain speeds to consumers had had "a detrimental effect on policy-making and the long-term national interest".

In August, the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt responded by stating that the UK will not have a competitive broadband network unless "we recognise the massive growth in demand for higher and higher speeds..... We must never fall into the trap of saying any speed is ‘enough'".

This was in stark contrast to minister for culture Ed Vaizey's comments that 2Mbit/s broadband would be sufficient for UK citizens - a comment that was labelled as "dumb" by former BT CTO Peter Cochrane, who added that Vaizey did not understand the need for fast broadband.

"Without faster broadband you can't provide ‘telemedical' services, remote education, you can't perform distributed design and manufacturing, you can't engage effective crowd sourcing, and so much more," Cochrane recently told Computing.

Hunt also said that the FTTC rollout was a "temporary stepping stone" towards FTTH, while insisting that the only way that FTTH will be provided around the UK will be if private-sector companies bankroll it.

"We will get there far more cheaply - and far more quickly - by harnessing the entrepreneurialism of private-sector broadband providers than by destroying their businesses from a mistaken belief that the state can do better," he said.

But getting broadband to the rural parts of UK has been a slower, more painful process, with a former BT programme manager stating that the government's plans to have superfast broadband available to 90 per cent of the UK by 2015 was a "Westminster myth".

In August, Cochrane slammed the UK's broadband rollout as "visionless", stating that there was no mission, plan or strategy for the UK, and that the UK needed FTTH not FTTC services.

"Until we have a vision and a business plan for this nation we will continue to wander around at random, making decisions that make no sense and that are extremely expensive, wasting vast amount of money," he said.

But the government and BT hit back stating that there is a clear plan, and that there is not enough demand for a FTTH service.

Cochrane also urged the government to connect both rural and urban areas to benefit the UK economy.

But with the European Union recently approving the £530m of state investment designed to increase connection speeds in rural areas, there seems to be light at the end of tunnel for those who live and work away from the UK's main urban centres.

Maria Miller was appointed to replace Hunt as culture secretary in September and began stamping her mark on the broadband plans just three days into the job by removing the need for local councils' approval to install broadband cabinets.

She stated that the move will allow the government to "cut through the bureaucracy that is holding [the UK] back". But the issue of bureaucracy is a challenge that Miller will constantly be confronted with.

For example, last week Miller was singled out for criticism by other ministers for holding back recovery of the UK by holding back the rollout of broadband. She hit back by claiming that she intervened in Brussels to bring "the rural broadband out from under stifling EU bureaucracy".

But this was refuted by Joaquin Almunia, the EU's competition commissioner, who told the FT that "Brussels bureaucrats worked faster than their London colleagues" in clearing the way for state aid.

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