Guest blog: Is the Government making broadband too difficult?

Guest blog: Is the Government making broadband too difficult?

It looks as if UK broadband is at a crossroads – 2015/2016 could mark a big year with exciting change and exponential investment in broadband infrastructure. BT and Virgin Media are powering ahead with infrastructure roll out, and newer mobile broadband technologies like 4G and Wifi-calling are gaining traction.

But there’s something unsettling about the combination of Ofcom’s impending digital communications review and the Government’s ambitious yet vague digital communications infrastructure strategy. 

Few would argue regulation is a bad thing; quite the opposite, it ensures consumers get a fair deal and for the most part it drives ISPs to provide innovative services. After all, Ofcom’s regulation of the 4G spectrum is in part responsible for the ever increasing 4G coverage. But are Government’s interventions in broadband speeds beginning to lose focus; causing confusion for consumers?

Take current Broadband Delivery UK targets: they’re set at 2Mb broadband for all by the end of 2016 and >24Mb for 95% by the end of 2017. But the Government recently announced a new, much higher goal stating: “ultrafast broadband of at least 100Mb should become available to nearly all UK premises???.

The lack of clarity is what’s most worrying about this new revelation. With no detail of how the 100Mb target could be reached, why it was chosen, or even who is responsible for seeing it through, it comes across as lacking real thought.

Ultimately, too much hype with no direction can lead to disappointment for consumers. We saw this earlier in the year when the European Commission were forced to pare back their much-anticipated “Connected Continent??? legislative package.

At first, it sounded like a great concept: “the freedom to provide and to consume (digital) services wherever one is in the EU???. And in 2013 uplifting speeches from European Commissioners really convinced us it would, somehow, go ahead.

But plans were too vague and, arguably, overambitious. In the end, even apparently guaranteed plans were softened and the only really solid regulation that could be agreed upon was to further reduce prices for mobile roaming. The reality of introducing a “Connected Continent??? is so much more complex than was communicated.

The same is true for broadband rollout targets. While it’s all very well to introduce price caps and targets that give people a fair deal and access to broadband, they need to be clear, achievable and made for good reason. They shouldn’t be decided on a whim and by choosing an impressive-sounding figure.

In April, proof of the confusion faced by consumers came in the form of a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). According to the complainants, forecasted dates for the availability of superfast broadband on the BT Consumer and Openreach websites were “frequently put back???.  And the complaints came despite the forecast dates being labeled as “estimates???.

Openreach described the deployment of fibre cabinets as a “complex engineering challenge??? and have since adjusted the calculations used in their availability checker to provide more robust estimates. But do consumers really understand the challenges involved in such a rollout?

As described by Openreach: “not only provision of the fibre, but availability of power connections, planning consent for the cabinet itself, possible road closures, traffic management permissions as well as space within their duct network to make the necessary connections???. And that’s without unforeseen delays.

So perhaps it’s time for a more realistic approach. The Government should consider how policies are communicated but also get better at sharing how hugely complex broadband rollout is. Because if they don’t, consumers will be left feeling let down when the unachievable isn’t achieved.

Lyndsey Burton is founder of Choose, a consumer comparison site that covers broadband.