Agenda item

Broadband Coverage

Report of the Executive Director: Growth, Planning & Housing.


6.1      The Chairman referred to the fact that in January 2015 the Committee had considered the position regarding fixed line broadband coverage in Westminster and the need for improvement in terms of connectivity and the increased take-up of superfast broadband.  A number of actions had resulted at the Committee meeting and it had been agreed that this topic would be revisited in 2016.  Members at the current meeting received a report setting out the progress made since January 2015.


6.2      The report was introduced at the meeting by Steve Carr, Deputy Director, West End Partnership and David Wilkins, Business and Enterprise Support Officer.  Mr Carr stated that at the time of the previous meeting in January 2015, OFCOM data from 2014 had showed that only 47% of premises in Westminster had access to superfast broadband.  OfCOM had not updated this figure but various surveys suggested that this figure had gone up.  A recent Think Broadband survey had suggested 71.1%.  A report from Grant Shapps MP had ranked parliamentary constituencies for superfast broadband coverage and had put the availability for Westminster North and Cities of London and Westminster constituencies as being 79% and 78% respectively, which was at a low level nationally.


6.3      Mr Carr advised the Committee on the progress made since the meeting, including that officers had ran a broadband campaign in summer 2015.  This had established that there was a huge appetite and demand for superfast broadband.  Discussions with BT Openreach had led to an agreement that they would deploy 142 additional street cabinets in Westminster by the end of 2017.  Five trial cabinets were agreed and it was believed that they had now been installed.  Virgin had agreed to update their legacy analogue cabinets, bringing additional connectivity to Pimlico and areas of Paddington in the next year.  Mr Carr added that he believed there was a lack of clarity from the main providers regarding when residents in specific streets would be receiving superfast broadband.  A ‘Wired Westminster Group’ had been established, chaired by Councillor Jonathan Glanz, in order to tackle some of the challenges regarding connectivity to premises and involves property firms, advisors and broadband operators. The DCMS Broadband Connection Voucher Scheme for small and medium sized firms had been promoted.  Westminster had topped the rankings for take up using the voucher scheme (Venus Communications who provide fibre to the premises had been successful in providing this service to Soho businesses) but the scheme had since been withdrawn by the Government.  Officers were, as part of their recommendations in the report, proposing a London or Westminster wide voucher scheme.  Mr Carr was working with the West End Partnership who had identified broadband connectivity as a major priority in their investment programme.


6.4      Mr Carr took Members through possible options for the future.  These included provision by the Council of ducts and infrastructure, potentially running a connection voucher scheme through the West End Partnership, continuing lobbying activities particularly with national government and continue dialogue with BT Openreach and other providers.  Mr Carr referred to the recent OFCOM report which had looked at whether the roles of BT and Openreach would be split.  It was yet to be seen whether this would take place and if there was an impact on Westminster.


6.5      Mr Wilkins briefly addressed the Committee on the work to strengthen the relationship between landlords and the broadband industry through the wayleave project.  Mr Wilkins stated that the two main pieces of work had been firstly promoting the Mayor’s ‘Wired Score’ scheme, which rates buildings according to broadband connectivity and encouraging the major property owners to adopt it.  This had been the case with the likes of Grosvenor Estates.  It was also being explored how these could be rolled out in Council buildings.  Currently the Council did not have many multi-tenanted buildings where this approach would be useful.  Secondly, through the Wired Westminster group and with Central London Forward and the City of London, British Standards Institute had been appointed to draft a Standard Wayleave Agreement.  This would help reduce the time and cost for small firms seeking connections via their landlords.  The work was going out to final consultation in March 2016.  It was hoped this could be launched in April/May.


6.6       The Committee heard evidence from Councillor Glanz, Lead Member for Connectivity (in addition to being the Chairman of the ‘Wired Westminster Group’); Kim Mears, Managing Director, Infrastructure Delivery, Openreach; Andrew Campling, General Manager, London, Southern and Eastern England, BT Group and Mark Spells, Programme Director for the South East at Openreach.  Councillor Glanz thanked officers for all the work they had done.  He made the point that there was still a huge amount of work to be done for businesses in Westminster to be able to compete with other areas of London, the United Kingdom and internationally.  The Grant Shapps MP report had referred to uncompetitive levels of superfast broadband being available in the two Westminster constituencies.   London’s average download speed ranked 26th out of 33 other European capital cities and London ranked 38th for average speeds among the top 40 British cities.  Constituents were expressing their frustration with the situation.


6.7       Councillor Glanz commented that BT Openreach and Virgin had stated their commitment to resolving the existing problems.  However, there were 142 cabinets proposed by the end of 2017 and of the five trial cabinets that had been installed, it was not known whether these had been connected yet.  It did not appear possible to give businesses and residents any realistic timescale regarding connectivity.  He had not seen any borough maps with indications of when superfast broadband would be installed.  The need for broadband connectivity appeared to be growing year by year with demand including entertainment packages.  This pattern would be expected to continue with ultra-definition services becoming available.  OFCOM had stated that fibre is the future.  Japan had 70% of its properties connected via a fibre link whilst the United Kingdom had 2%.  The UK was still using copper wire.  The Council needed to work with the industry to fill gaps and ensure there were clear timescales as to when fibre broadband would be available to residents and businesses.   Councillor Caplan, who made the point that broadband was included in his Cabinet Member portfolio and that of Councillor Astaire’s, brought to Members’ attention that Westminster was the home of some very small businesses and they operated right across the borough.  The debate was not just about the West End.  Many of the major businesses could pay for the service they required.  However, there were many residents and small businesses that were not able to have the required connectivity to proceed with business or leisure activities.  An operator or operators needed to provide the necessary broadband connectivity.  


6.8       Ms Mears stated that there had been difficulties in reaching an agreement with the Council about signing off and siting street furniture just over two years ago and deployment had stopped. She welcomed the fact that there were positive discussions about introducing fibre broadband.  Ms Mears gave some background to her role.  Openreach is a separate entity within BT and is responsible for the access network.  She is responsible for delivering the large scale infrastructure programmes, including the roll-out of fibre across the UK as well as Broadband Delivery UK (‘BDUK’).  BDUK was a co-funded arrangement with the national Government and local bodies.  Currently over 24 million homes had access to fibre broadband via BT Openreach. 


6.9       Ms Mears confirmed that there had been an agreement with the Leader of the Council to deploy 142 cabinets across Westminster which would bring fibre broadband to homes by the end of 2017.  37 street cabinets had been surveyed and 15 had been stood.  The programme was under way.  There was one cabinet which was fully functional.  By the end of March 2016, 12 cabinets would be released for service to 3500 homes.  By the end of October 2016, there would be another 13000 homes benefiting.  She commented that there were issues with putting street furniture under the ground in Westminster, including congestion but BT Openreach would be working with officers to resolve any problems.  There was a good working relationship with highways officers.


6.10    Ms Mears advised that it was possible for customers to access detailed BDUK maps with the future locations of fibre broadband connectivity from the Openreach website if they entered their telephone number.  There was also an option for the Council to proceed with an Open Market Review.  With the OMR, it would be possible to see where suppliers were declaring they had network and where customers were being served across the borough.  She stated that OFCOM had referred to BT having installed ultra-fast broadband (fibre to the premises) in 2% of homes in contrast to 70% via fibre to cabinet.  However, fibre to the premises was only one way of introducing ultra-fast technology.  Openreach had committed to deliver ultra-fast technology to 10 million homes by 2020 via  There would also be pilots to establish how fibre to the premises could be delivered in a more cost effective way.  She added that the 142 cabinets in Westminster by the end of 2017 was only a chapter in the story and discussions needed to take place as to how matters would be taken forward after that.


6.11    The following points were made as a result of questions from the Committee:


·           Mr Carr stated that the Council had worked with a number of providers, including Community Fibre and Venus as well as BT Openreach.

·           Ms Mears advised that if there were problems with siting street cabinets, she would be liaising with Council officers on creating alternatives, including potentially requesting access to basements (this had been the case in City of London).  The 142 cabinets being provided for the roll-out was the number which was commercially viable for BT Openreach.  37 cabinets had been surveyed and until the full 142 had been surveyed it was not known what the exact position would be.  If BT Openreach and the Council worked together, solutions would be found.  She would continue to look for solutions that would ensure the deployment was cheaper and faster.  BT Openreach was working with the Council and with City of London on the wayleave agreements. 

·           In response to concerns about timescales and a perception that there was a lack of urgency, Ms Mears stated that she was willing to provide milestones to the cabinets being installed by the end of 2017.  106,000 homes would benefit from fibre to cabinet broadband by this date.  This would be a complex engineering programme. She informed Members that she was also looking at the potential of Passive Optical Networks.  Councillor Caplan made the point that officers would work together to find locations with BT Openreach.  There would be more confidence in the BT Openreach programme in Westminster once it was established where the cabinets would be, when they would be installed and what areas would be receiving fibre to cabinet broadband coverage.  There was currently a lack of detail as to what was envisaged.  Ms Mears and Mr Campling responded that permits had been given by the Council to BT Openreach for cabinets and they knew where they wanted to put them.  Once they became confident in the deployment process they would publish this information, including on the Openreach website.  They would be willing to share information confidentially with officers.

·           Mr Campling commented that it was not the case that the UK was behind other countries in installing broadband.  He stated that the deployment in the UK was the fastest in the world and a number of countries were copying UK’s technological approach.  Pricing in the UK was cheaper than other countries.  The UK public often did not like to pay more for services, retained slower broadband and did not upgrade.  In broadband speed comparisons with other cities, they were not looking at the capability of the other line network but the average speed of the technology customers were choosing to use.  In some other countries faster broadband was a default service.  The average speeds quoted in the UK were purely for broadband whereas in other countries they were a combination of broadband and business grade services.  Westminster businesses did have access to excellent business grade services.  He added that he believed that the Grant Shapps MP data was at least two years out of date in terms of Westminster (he could provide more current data) and that a PWC survey had found in a study of 30 global cities, London had been second to Seoul in broadband quality.  He believed that in comparison with New York State in terms of broadband availability, London fared well.  The target was 95% in most counties of the UK by 2017.

·           Ms Mears gave Members information on Community Fibre Partnerships.  This was where Openreach works with a local group or community that are not covered in an existing fibre upgrade plan to find a solution to bring fibre to their area. This was co-funded by Openreach.

·           Ms Mears confirmed she was more than happy to attend future meetings of the Committee and provide regular updates on progress regarding broadband connectivity.  Mr Campling gave an invitation to Members to visit BT Openreach offices in Judd Street to see the technology being used first hand, including the cabinets.  The Committee thanked the BT Openreach representatives for this invitation.


6.12    The Committee welcomed the much improved joint working relationship with BT Openreach.  The Chairman stated that it had been useful to receive clarity on the timelines to the 142 cabinets being deployed in 2017 and that regular updates would be received from BT Openreach.  Officers and Members were encouraged not only to focus on the 2017 target but what could potentially be achieved after this date.  The Chairman requested that officers investigate the potential opportunities provided by an Open Market Review as referred to by Ms Mears.


6.13    Councillor Glanz provided the Committee with some closing thoughts on broadband connectivity.  He referred to the fact that of the 142 cabinets, 37 had been surveyed, 15 stood and 12 deployed by the end of March.  He asked what would be the position with the overall figure of 142 cabinets if BT Openreach then found that cabinets at certain locations were not viable.  He also asked what is defined as a community in respect of Community Fibre Partnerships and how groups could get involved.  Could businesses in an area rather than in a single building have access to the grants?  Could the grants be used to update the cabinet?  He stated that his experience was that broadband technology for residents was not suitable for businesses and he was therefore interested in the hybrid concept that BT Openreach had appeared to hint at during the meeting.  The fibre infrastructure was often there under the streets and a way needed to be found for local people to be able to access it.  Councillor Glanz emphasised that the Wired Westminster Group had talked to other providers other than BT Openreach and about other supply mechanisms such as superfast and ultrafast broadband, satellite and point to point link and 4G connectivity.  He added that no one supplier was favoured in finding solutions to the broadband coverage issues.  BT Openreach representatives at the meeting stated they would provide answers to Councillor Glanz’s questions in his closing statement.


6.14    ACTION: The following action arose:


·           That the BT Openreach representatives in attendance at the meeting respond to the questions raised by Councillor Glanz in paragraph 6.13 above.  This information to be provided to the Committee.


6.15   RESOLVED:


1.    The Committee recommended that:


1)    Officers investigate the potential opportunities provided by an Open Market Review.


2.    The Committee noted BT Openreach’s commitment to:


1)    Attend future meetings of the Committee.


2)    Provide regular updates on progress regarding broadband connectivity and share with the Council the milestones in reaching the target to deploy 142 street cabinets by the end of 2017.


3)    The Committee supports that continued discussions take place with various suppliers  in order to provide superfast broadband to as many residents and businesses in the borough as possible and that no one supplier is favoured in order to achieve this.

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