Rural broadband and digital-only services - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

2  Broadband availability

8. According to BT only 3% of UK premises (around 850,000) cannot currently access more than 2 Mbps per second or 'basic' broadband coverage and 78% of premises now have access to superfast broadband.[9] Availability of superfast broadband has increased from 60% at the end of 2011 to 78% in June 2014 and the BT 'fibre footprint' is increasing at a rate of 60 000 premises a week.[10]

9. National average figures mask significant local disparities, however, and it is inevitable that rural areas, being hardest to reach, fall below, and in some cases well below, those overall tallies. Recent data demonstrate that 16 UK parliamentary constituencies still have zero coverage of 'superfast' broadband.[11] No target date has been set for moving the final 5% of premises to superfast broadband access: the absence of information on that point was repeatedly mentioned in written evidence to us.

10. For those affected, there is concern that coverage targets and deadlines are unclear, minimum speed requirements too slow and distribution of information at local level too poor.[12]

Coverage targets

11. Target dates for delivering universal basic (2 Mbps) broadband coverage have changed a number of times. The original date for completion was 2012, but the Government moved that to the end of the current Parliament and has since changed the date again, to the end of 2016. Similarly, the Government's original objective of rolling out superfast broadband to cover 90% of premises by 2015 has been altered to 95% of premises by 2017.[13] Nor is it certain that even that target will be met: when the Committee questioned BT, its Group Director for Strategy, Policy and Portfolio, Sean Williams, replied: "it is there or thereabouts. It may end up being in 2018".[14]

12. Without any official target date, it is also unclear when superfast broadband will reach the final 5% of premises. Chris Townsend, Chief Executive Officer of BDUK, stated in our evidence session: "I am absolutely committed to finalising that last 5% by 2020 at the very latest".[15] Each of the 44 local bodies has a wide variation in geography, topography and other issues, however, explaining why equal coverage can be difficult to achieve. Chris Townsend admitted that "at the end of phase one, some local bodies will be in the high 70s, others will be in the high 90s".[16]

13. Repeated changes in target dates for rollout of superfast broadband inevitably reduce confidence that coverage will be achieved on time. They also leave those in the hardest-to-reach areas uncertain as to when their businesses will be able fully to engage with digital practices. Beyond business purposes, householders, particularly in rural communities, are being left behind in accessing online services that most of the country can take for granted. Activities as diverse as children's homework, online tax returns, and simply watching television now depend significantly on good online access.

14. We were concerned to hear BT tell us that the present target of 95% of premises receiving superfast broadband by 2017 may slip. Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) must make it clear that the target date must be met. A target date for when the last 5% of premises will obtain access to superfast broadband coverage must be published.


15. There are two speeds which are important for broadband coverage in England. The first is the Universal Service Commitment (USC), a commitment from the Government that "virtually everyone" will have access to broadband at a speed of 2 Mbps and above. The second is 24 Mbps, the speed currently used in England to define superfast broadband.

16. In spite of what BT says about near universal basic coverage, written evidence to us suggests that in practice 2 Mbps is not delivered consistently. Recurring problems include poor speed at peak times and broadband 'dropping in and out', meaning that the connection sometimes fails completely. Andrew Clark, the NFU's director of policy, suggested that minimum broadband speeds are akin to fuel consumption in a car: "you rarely find that you can actually achieve it".[17] Ofcom has also suggested that increasing average speeds mask significant variation in the speeds received by individual households.[18]

17. There is disagreement about what constitutes an acceptable minimum broadband speed. Sean Williams from BT said: "2 Mbps is essentially our view of what the minimum speed for an acceptable broadband service is these days".[19] However, it is unclear why this speed has been chosen or how long this should remain the basic speed. 2Mbps broadband speed allows a user to access emails and webpages with basic functionality. For example the BBC IPlayer website states that 2 Mbps of sustained speed is necessary for standard play, but 3 Mbps is necessary for high-definition services. [20]

18. The 2 Mbps figure raises two problems. Firstly, there is an assumption that this figure is already universally accessible, but much of the evidence we have received makes it clear that in reality 2 Mbps is often a maximum, rather than a consistent speed achieved, and that it is often unachievable at peak times. The second issue is that 2 Mbps may no longer be an acceptable minimum. James Fraser wrote in his written evidence:

Today an internet connection needs at least 2 Mbps to be considered functional. In a further five years' time most internet users are likely to require 24 Mbps for their service to be functional. In the future we may well find that 100 Mbps becomes a new minimum.[21]

19. In the 2014 Infrastructure report, Ofcom said:

    The Government's current Universal Service Commitment (USC) of 2 Mbit/s may now merit review. Evidence suggests that c 10 Mbit/s may now be required to meet consumer's expectations of standard broadband.[22]

20. For many services, 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) is already an outdated figure, and 10 Mbps is increasingly recommended as a suitable USC for standard provision. The Government must reassess whether the 2 Mbps Universal Service Commitment remains a valid one.


21. The superfast broadband speed definition is the second important speed target. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport define superfast broadband as 24 Mbps. Projects already under way will satisfy the superfast criteria if they deliver 24 Mbps, the BT rollout is classified as already under way. However, future projects must target speeds of 30 Mbps to qualify as superfast. This new speed of 30 Mbps is closer to European targets. The EU expects all Member States to have access to 30 Mbps by 2020.[23]

22. Millions of pounds are being invested in the rollout of superfast broadband at 24 Megabits per second. Within three years of the expected delivery date, however, that speed will no longer be considered 'superfast' by European standards.

Information sharing

23. BT have a range of contractual measures in place which limit information sharing about the progress of broadband rollout. The standard contract between BT and a local authority includes non-disclosure agreements which prevent local authorities from discussing their contractual arrangements with one another. BT's detailed plans for rollout of superfast broadband in any area are part of the contract agreed between BT and local authorities. The contract includes provision that details about when and where BT will install superfast broadband remain confidential between the parties. It has been argued that this raises difficulties when other suppliers have insufficient information to enable them to develop plans for alternative projects to reach premises not covered by the current programme.

24. Much of the written evidence we have received refers to the absence of clear and accessible information sharing about broadband rollout. For example South Somerset and East Devon District Councils and Baron St David Parish Council state there is an "absence of transparency"[24] and "no visibility on how public money is being spent.[25] Business in the Community, a business-led charity, asked for:

Greater transparency from all parties involved in the rollout of the Superfast broadband programme, which should provide information about the current availability of superfast broadband at a premises level and where the coverage will be provided to 95% of premises by 2017.[26]

25. Councils need access to timely data from BT that allows them accurately to monitor take-up of broadband. Equally, they need access to timely data from BT about planned broadband coverage and speed. It has been argued that distributing information about broadband coverage on a postcode by postcode basis can be misleading. An 'enabled' postcode does not necessarily mean that each premise within the postcode is enabled.

  1. We are surprised that no assessment of the first phase of contracts with BT has been published before the phase two and three contracts are signed. Phase two contracts being signed must include provisions to ensure that local councils and BT keep local communities up-to-date with planned broadband coverage and speed. Information about rollout should be delivered on a premise-by-premise basis as opposed to by postcode.

9   BT (RBB 0091) para 2  Back

10   BT (RBB 0091) para 2  Back

11   Fixed Broadband: Policy and Speeds 2014, Standard note SN06643, House of Commons Library, December 2014  Back

12   Fontburn Residents' Association and Internet Project, Northumberland (RBB 0067) para 3  Back

13   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 'Broadband Delivery UK,' accessed 23 January 2015  Back

14   Q10 Back

15   Q182  Back

16   Q160  Back

17   Q128  Back

18   OFCOM, Infrastructure Report 2014 (December 2014), p38  Back

19   Q2 Back

20   BBC, 'iPlayer Help', accessed 26 January 2015  Back

21   James Fraser (RBB 0005) para 19 Back

22   OFCOM, Infrastructure Report 2014 (December 2014), p20 Back

23   European Commission, 'Digital Agenda for Europe: About our goals', accessed 26 January 2015  Back

24   South Somerset and East Devon District Councils (RBB 0031) para 4  Back

25   Baron St David Parish Council (RBB 0032) para 13 Back

26   Business in the Community (RBB 0082) para 4  Back

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Prepared 3 February 2015