Fixing rural broadband 'not spots'

Man using laptop in a field Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Many broadband users in rural areas are said to be "struggling with very low capacity"

Did the government and our local councils get it wrong when they drew up their plans for the roll out of broadband across the region?

That was the question left hanging in the air after an independent broadband provider from Norfolk gave evidence to MPs at Westminster this week.

The chief executive of WiSpire, a broadband provider set up by the Diocese of Norwich and publishing company Archant, told MPs many rural communities had been deprived of a decent broadband service because all the effort and money had gone into subsidising BT's fibre optic cable roll-out.

"The system that has been put in place has resulted in significant sums of money being put at the disposal of BT," Steve Maine told members of the Culture and Media Select Committee. "This has had an anti-competitive effect, working to the detriment of consumers."

WiSpire's unique selling point is that it uses transmitters in church spires to deliver broadband to hard-to-reach areas.

Mr Maine's argument is that in rural areas, the kind of technology offered by his company and others can sometimes be better than relying on fibre optic cable. Yet the government and county council have decided to subsidise BT to provide superfast broadband to 95% of the population.

"Government policy is focussed exclusively on the deployment of fibre," he said.

"Fibre is good technology for providing a lot of bandwidth in densely-populated areas, but it can be expensive to deploy in sparsely-populated areas. To deliver good broadband services economically in sparsely-populated areas, you need to use other technologies"

'Grotesque problem'

Mr Maine also questioned whether there was too much emphasis on providing homes with high speed broadband. Many people in rural areas, he said, were struggling with very low capacity, often under 2Mbps.

"For them 10Mbps would be nirvana," said Mr Maine, who believes they could probably live without the superfast speed which BT is being subsidised to install.

Fibre cable, he argued, was not the solution to providing a universal service.

Mr Maine also accused BT and the county councils of "a clever use of language" to suggest fibre cable was covering a much larger area of the country than it really is and ever will be able to.

"Even in areas which are claimed by BT and the county councils to be served by fibre cables, you will find large numbers of people who are not benefitting from the alleged availability of fibre in those areas. This is a grotesque problem that needs to be addressed"

It'll be interesting to see if the MPs, when they publish their report, agree with Mr Maine.

There is some disquiet among MPs about the decision to give BT the contract to roll out fibre broadband, and South Norfolk MP, Richard Bacon, has raised concerns in the Public Accounts Committee.

Just the other week, more than 100 MPs including Peter Aldous (Waveney), Sir Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk), Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford), Douglas Carswell (Clacton), Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) and Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) raised concerns about giving BT Openreach the broadband contract. They suggested the company should be broken up.

BT and Norfolk County Council did not give evidence to the committee but the county council said when it put the broadband contract out to tender, BT was the only company to apply.

It says the deal with BT has connected thousands of people but it accepts there is still more to do.

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