The lack of reliable high speed broadband is something which many people in rural areas consider to the biggest challenge to their communities. The Government has promised superfast broadband to 90% of UK premises by 2016 but this still leaves approx. 1.3 million homes and businesses without a superfast connection.
Our fringe event “Broadband: why the final 10% matter?” at the Conservative Party Conference, similar to our event at the Labour Conference, was a chance to discuss why it is essential that the final 10% of homes and businesses are connected and how this is going to be delivered. Our panellists included Matt Warman MP Co-Chair of the APPG on internet, communication and technology, John Roebuck from Watts Auctioneers, a firm that increasingly relies on the internet, Iain Wood from TalkTalk and Kim Mears from the BT Group.
Matt Warman acknowledged the physical difficulties in connecting the final 10% which are in some of Britain’s most remote areas but stressed that this was no excuse for abandoning attempts to improve connectivity in these areas. He suggested that it would have been better to level with certain communities earlier on in the process about the likelihood that they would never form part of the commercial rollout. With greater transparency, they could have been encouraged to explore alternative technological solutions, he stated. “We need to be fundamentally committed to much, much greater transparency if we are to solve this problem for the remaining 10%” he declared.
Iain Wood highlighted the risk of creating “an entrenched two-tier economy” as services became increasingly digitalised and rural areas would not be able to compete without reliable high-speed broadband. It was important to ensure that people could pursue high-tech and creative occupations in areas beyond London and other urban areas he argued. He expressed doubts about this being achieved by the current situation and said that TalkTalk had “fundamental concerns” about the market, given BT’s “continued dominance” and cited Ofcom’s ongoing consideration of whether Openreach ought to be separated out of BT.
Kim Mears rejected the idea that the final 10% of coverage could be delivered by breaking up the BT Group. She declared that Openreach was not a monopoly at new sites, and was currently working with developers on ways to co-fund superfast broadband provision for such premises. She also explained that “give-back” funding could be provided to local broadband bodies following overachievement on coverage in certain areas, but also argued that innovative technological solutions would be needed to meet the requirements of what – she suggested – would ultimately become “the final 4%.”
John Roebuck provided context to the discussion with a perspective from the world of business. As auctioneers, Watts & Associates conduct live auctions online to a global audience. He argued that merely having internet access was not good enough as business needed cost-effective, affordable services that were fast and reliable. He highlighted the damaging economic impact of poor connectivity, which could lead to lost transactions and a frustrating customer experience which ultimately had an impact on revenue. “We are reliant on something that we’re not necessarily getting all the time”, he lamented, calling for the improvements to broadband that his business needed in order to compete.
Contributing from the audience, Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach agreed on the need for more transparency. She argued that councillors ought to add planning conditions specifying open connections for new housing, so that any provider could be used. She also argued that there was a “political imperative” to break the BT “monopoly” so that alternative technologies could be used to provide mobile signal where it was not currently available.
Matt Warman pledged to look at the question of planning further. He argued that BT was being blamed for problems as the rollout was currently in an implementation rather than a tendering phase. However, the next phase must not frustrate people in this way, he declared. He also hailed the potential of wireless solutions as part of the solution.