Why is BT shovelling more money into inner-city fibre?

24 Jan 2014

How about this for a coincidence? Just moments after I appeared on Radio 4’s You and Yours, reiterating my long-running complaint about being left on the fringes of BT’s fibre rollout, a BT press release lands in my inbox trumpeting how the company plans to spend an extra £50 million extending its fibre network. I had no idea I was that influential.

It turns out that I’m not. Because none of that £50 million will be spent in my area, nor any town or village that has yet to see a shiny new fibre cabinet arrive at the end of the street. BT’s ploughing another £50 million into cities: areas that BT’s own press release concedes “already have access to ultra-fast speeds”.

Head, meet desk.

What’s not at all clear is how many of these inner-city areas are already covered by Virgin Media’s cable network

Now, let’s be fair to BT for a minute. It’s not only homes in Outer Suburbia that have been left out of the fibre rollout to date. Listeners to You and Yours would have heard my colleague, Chris Wiles, complaining that he’s been overlooked in the centre of Bath, and another former colleague tweeted me this morning to say he’s stuck on a sub-1Mbits/sec connection in the distinctly unleafy London borough of Barnet.

BT says this new wad of cash – which represents less than 2% of the £3 billion it’s spending nationwide – will be spent "enabling city cabinets that weren't part of BT’s original commercial plans due to technical challenges or local planning restrictions". In other words, having gobbled up all the low-hanging fruit, BT’s putting a bit more effort in.

What’s not at all clear is how many of these inner-city areas are already covered by Virgin Media’s cable network. I put this question to a BT spokesman, who said he couldn’t give me a precise answer because the rollout plans haven’t been finalised, but said the company “is confident the majority isn’t covered by Virgin Media”. So anything up to 49% of fibre network overlap, then…

BT also argues that the money being thrown into this project is directly from its own coffers, none of it's coming out of the public purse.  Yet, only 18 months ago, the government announced it was ploughing £100 million into creating ten ultrafast broadband cities. How much more money is going to be shovelled into inner-city areas that already have access to Virgin Media’s fibre in the vast majority of cases, and above average ADSL speeds if they don’t?

Sure, increased competition is great for those living in the big cities. But for the millions of people in towns and villages who can’t get a connection fast enough to work from home, watch the BBC iPlayer or hold a Skype conversation with friends and family, competing fibre networks are but a pipe dream.

Unless, of course, BT spots a local fibre project taking hold, in which case the company’s vans seem to swiftly arrive on the scene. BT has repeatedly denied it gazumps local fibre projects, but I’m going to get a high-vis jacket, paint a Virgin Media logo on the side of a van, and start digging up the pavement at the end of my street. Just in case.

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