Cabinet minister in 'not actually addressing direct question' shocker
Waiting for Ed Vaizey to get back to me about the UK broadband rollout has proved even slower than many UK customers' connection speeds.
Back in January, I wrote a piece highlighting a Twitter conversation I had with the Minister of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries about the realities of superfast UK broadband rollout. At the time, Vaizey would only accept my assertions about the sad reality - based on the argument that the fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) scheme being rolled out is hamstrung by the slow copper wires that run from the cabinets to the homes - as "anecdotes".
Instead, BT, the government and Vaizey in particular are very keen to keep trumpeting about the "90 per cent of UK homes and businesses" that are enjoying sustained superfast broadband speeds, with no mention of that 'last mile' between cabinet and home, and the realities that means for many connection speeds.
Vaizey made it clear he chooses only to accept "independent" speed tests taken out by ThinkBroadband or Ookla as fact, and chooses to ignore mounting evidence from many individual users in so-called superfast areas that suggests "superfast" may often be a meaningless phrase in practice.
After several tweets and emails to his office inviting him to pen a piece for us in response went unanswered, I had no choice but to meet Vaizey in his natural environment a couple of weeks ago, at a lovely drinks and nibbles party at the House of Commons, as the sun set over the Thames.
Vaizey was the guest of honour at this gathering, organised by Labour MP Mark Tami as some sort of PR vehicle for telco and networks repair firm Comtek Network Systems - a company running out of his constituency of Alyn and Deeside.
After slapping himself on the back a few times for his "great achievement - well I would say that, wouldn't I?" and making a hilarious crack about the apparently monstrous length of the driveway up to Tami's "estate", Vaizey finally let me get my question in:
Do the independent statistics about a 90 per cent broadband rollout Vaizey keeps waving around include speeds to the cabinet [FTTC], or are they all the way to the home [FTTH]?
After reminding me and every other person in the room that my original piece was apparently "incredibly misleading", Vaizey went on to say:
"As you know, because you're an expert, sometimes people don't get the broadband they're expecting for many different reasons. It could be their router, it could be their wiring, it could be a number of factors."
Bit Vague, Ed? So it's basically each consumer or business owner's fault and/or responsibility after the cabinet?
"But in terms of the homes that are able to access superfast broadband, we do audit those figures."
Yes. ThinkBroadband audit your figures for you. We understand. You've said it often enough.
Still, a second opinion's never a bad thing, and might help me make a firmer point than all those "anecdotes" (in reality, hundreds of comments from those in fibre areas who have terrible connection speeds) I apparently keep coming out with.
How about the research that independent broadband service comparison site Cable.co.uk has just carried out, which includes stats to back up the assertion that two thirds of people are being actively misled by Openreach's marketing of what it's offering as "fibre" broadband?
One of Cable.co.uk's interviewees - Benoit Felten of telco analytics firm Diffraction Analysis - has in fact compared the level of misinformation being spread about by OpenReach (and by extension, surely, the government - its most powerful cheerleader) as on a par with the horsemeat scandal:
"It's time for the marketers to clarify and sell what they advertise," Mr Felten told Cable.co.uk.
"There's a reason we don't have ‘meat' on food labels instead of 'beef' or 'pork'. There's also a reason why horse meat lasagne was a big scandal in Europe: it's not that they were improper for consumption, it's that when you buy beef, you should get beef."
But the real meat (sorry) of what Cable.co.uk's brought us is a more concrete view of the level to which customers are being misled. It effectively answers the question I directly put to Vaizey which he chose, that night at Westminster, to dodge again:
Cable.co.uk asked 1,000 UK-based fibre broadband customers what sort of cable they think is bringing their internet connection to their home from the cabinet. 677 thought it was an actual fibre optic cable, 93 correctly answered copper while, just as worryingly, 216 didn't even know.
Mike Kiely, ex-BT manager who worked on launching broadband in the UK, calls FTTC "an interim solution", commenting on its choice by government and BT for national rollout because, basically, it's much cheaper to lay than FTTH.
My argument isn't just that FTTC has been mis-sold as a good solution when it really isn't - it's also that the 90 per cent coverage statistic is essentially garbage when that 90 per cent of cabinets don't have a robust ‘last mile' of connectivity to many, many homes.
Vaizey also chose, that evening, to attempt to discredit my reporting of fact that the government has moved the end date of the coverage promise - largely in order to carry out more grandstanding about his perceived 'successes'. But this again was really just sidestepping the point:
"We set ourselves a target of 90 per cent, and the programme is going so well - and the Chancellor looked at the minister and thought, ‘the minister's doing such a good job', that he gave me more money and increased the target to 95 per cent," said Vaizey.
"So we haven't moved the target, we've increased the target because we're so confident in the programme and what it's going to deliver."
A 95 per cent fast broadband rollout to cabinets is just as useless as 90 per cent when nobody is replacing the copper over which, as anyone knows, the quality and speed of an internet connection degrades over a short distance.
It's a simple point, but one I'd urge Mr Vaizey to actually address this time (you have the right to reply, Ed!), instead of trying to squirm his way around it with the same, hackneyed old braggadocio.