Friday, 28 February 2014

What will the current fibre rollout achieve in Scotland?

Revised 3/3/2014 following correction of a bug in the software used to the figures in an earlier version of this post.
4/3/2014 Changed threshold for superfast to >24 Mb/s (and recalculated figures) in response to comments.

What will the current fibre roll-out achieve?

This note (corrected 3/3/2014[1]) is an attempt to quantify the impact of the Scottish Government’s Step Change[2] programme on the availability of superfast broadband across Scotland. It is born out of frustration at the inadequacy of information in the public domain.

Our main conclusion is that the claim[3] that the current investment in Scotland’s infrastructure  “will ensure that 95 per cent of premises in Scotland will have access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017-18” is not credible.

According to our calculations, less than 85% of Scottish households will have access to superfast broadband, and the long-term prospects for rural Scotland are dismal:

  • We predict that  at least 43% of the 450,000 households in rural[4] Scotland will not receive superfast broadband from the current programme.
  • There is no indication of how the 15% left behind following the core investment in Step Change will ever achieve next-generation speeds.

These claims are made on the basis of the available data, and it is possible that we are wrong, but –- as scientists – we want to see the full evidence that refutes them.

Will the Step Change programme achieve its target?

Most people in Scotland are connected to a cabinet or an exchange by copper wire.  If that copper connection is more than 1.3km long, it will not carry the > 24Mb/s required for the “Step Change” programme[5].  The current plans are mostly to bring fibre to existing exchanges and cabinet locations.  The data available to us[6] suggests that around 84% of Scotland’s households are served from cabinets, and that less than 79% are connected to a cabinet by less than 1.2 km of copper.  If every cabinet is upgraded, all of these homes should be able to order a superfast connection.

For those on exchange-only lines, we can only estimate the copper lengths based on the distance to the exchange. On the positive side, we estimate that one third of the exchange only lines may be short enough to deliver superfast speeds. Our optimistic estimate is that up to 85% of households in Scotland might be able to access superfast speeds over their existing copper lines, if every exchange and every cabinet were converted.[7]

Households in Scotland

Line to cabinet

Exchange only line

Less than 1.2 km of copper



More than 1.2km of copper



On the negative side, not all exchanges and cabinets will be converted, our speed estimates are based on the copper wiring being in good condition, and our estimates are conservative (they assume that the lengths of exchange-only lines are similar to those of lines that go via cabinets, but we believe that many will be longer). We therefore expect that the real situation will be much worse. For the final 16% – over a third of a million households  – there is no upgrade path in sight: those on long copper lines will be left behind,  not able to enjoy superfast speeds using the technologies currently being deployed.

If we apply our analysis to the different geographies of Scotland, using the Scottish Government’s 8-fold Urban-Rural classification, the rural picture looks much worse.

Upper limits for copper-based superfast



Households left behind

Large Urban Areas




Other Urban Areas




Accessible small Towns




Remote Small Towns




Very Remote Small Towns




Accessible Rural




Remote Rural




Very Remote Rural








The table shows our optimistic estimates of the maximum reach of copper-based superfast in each of the eight urban-rural classifications, either via cabinets (FTTC) or by a combination of cabinets and exchange-only lines (FTTC+EO).

These numbers do not take account of households receiving Virgin broadband via cable, but few, if any, of these are in the isolated postcodes far from an exchange.

Those left behind

The heart of the Step Change programme is an extended fibre network.  However being close to that network does not guarantee access to it.  An analogy with a road system may be useful.  Think of the fibre network – the information superhighway – as a motorway system. You can only get on to the motorway of you have access to an off-ramp; living next to the motorway is not enough. Similarly, fibre that just passes by is useless, unless there is a point of presence (PoP) nearby where local network traffic can join and exit the superhighway.

In the last two years there have been a significant efforts by several communities to install their own networks (using wireless or local fibre) for fast broadband distribution.  Such solutions to the problem of remote rural areas have recently been recognised by SG in its investment in community broadband, through Community Broadband Scotland. However, the funding available is limited, compared to the scale of the problem. Furthermore, such networks cannot realise their potential unless there is affordable access to a PoP.  At present several hundreds of households are connected to local networks that could deliver superfast broadband, but there is no PoP for them to connect to.  

The fibre that will soon pass through remote and rural Scotland will have been subsided from the public purse, but it will belong to BT. Currently there are no published details of the locations of points of presence, nor of any  contractual obligations on BT to provide access on competitive terms–and where there is public subsidy, there is no competition.

The Scottish Government must ensure that communities, and third parties, can use this fibre to carry their traffic on transparent, fair and reasonable terms.

State aid

The state aid approval[8] for the BDUK programme requires BDUK to publish details of “the wholesale products on offer and the pricing of those products.” However, the information published to date, is entirely inadequate. There are no details of points of presence, not even their positions, nor of the products that will be offered, nor their pricing.


In 2001 the Scottish Government published a report[9] correctly identifying the need for rural Internet and suggesting a good strategy for delivering it. At present Scotland has no plans that will achieve the EU target of 30 Mb/s to all by 2020. It has no plans for delivering it to the final 15% of its population, which includes almost half of its rural households. Rather than assuming that a virtual monopoly of the telecommunications infrastructure will solve the problem if given enough money, the Scottish Government needs to act quickly, decisively and independently in order to avert the likelihood that yet another generation of rural inhabitants will miss out on the opportunities for social, political, and economic development afforded by the Internet.

Without regulated open access to the publicly subsidised core infrastructure, sufficient to enable communities and third-parties to develop and maintain alternatives to the too-long copper connections – alternatives that must support both domestic and business connections – we see no way forward for those left behind by Step Change.

Peter Buneman

Michael Fourman

The University of Edinburgh, February 2014

[1] There was a bug in the programme used to calculate the figures given an earlier version of this note. The situation in urban areas is significantly better than we had said; the rural situation marginally worse.

[5] It is important to realise that the figure of 24Mb/s is neither necessary nor sufficient for satisfactory broadband.  There are other issues such as symmetry, latency and download volumes that need to be considered.  Satellite connections, for example, may provide 24Mb/s but fail on these other issues; moreover, they are not cost-effective compared with fibre or terrestrial wireless for households with normal levels of data consumption.  For more details see Analysys Mason report.The costs and capabilities of  wireless and satellite technologies. p90 ff  90(2010)

[6] Line-length data, courtesy of GreySky consulting, locations of BT exchanges, and census data.

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