The Broadband Manifestos

With the impending general election, I thought it might be instructive to see what the various parties were offering with respect to broadband in the UK, which might influence your vote one way or another. Or not, as the case may be. 

Labour

We will deliver universal superfast broadband availability by 2022. Labour will improve mobile internet coverage and expand provision of free public wi-fi in city centres and on public transport. We will improve 4G coverage and invest to ensure all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage. On day one we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out ‘ultrafast’ 300Mbps across the within the next decade. 

My Views On Labour's Broadband Proposals

In my opinion this is vague and woolly. It's not inspiring. There's nothing super nor fast about "superfast broadband", which is a made up marketing term anyway, and what does "availability" mean? Uninterrupted 5G coverage - what does "uninterrupted" mean? 

The promise to instruct yet another report to be written on how to roll out fibre to the home (when we already know how to do this), with such a low target of 300Mbps (is this symmetrical or asymmetric? What's the upload speed, Jeremy?) misses the mark and, based on what the rest of the EU is doing (read my post here), isn't competitive enough.

The 300Mbps makes me think this is an allusion to BT's GPON-based optical infrastructure, so this is simply a "more of the same" proposal.

Marks out of 10: 2, as they really haven't tried very hard

Conservatives

We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed. By the end of this year, 19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband and our Universal Service Obligation will ensure that by 2020 every home and every business in Britain has access to high speed broadband. We will work to provide gigaspeed connectivity to as many businesses and homes as possible. We will introduce a full-fibre connection voucher for companies across the country by 2018 and by 2022 we will have major fibre spines in over a hundred towns and cities, with ten million premises connected to full-fibre and a clear path to national coverage over the next decade. 

We have similar ambitions for mobile phone coverage. By 2022 we will extend mobile coverage further to 95 per cent geographic coverage of the UK. By the same date, all major roads and main line trains will enjoy full and uninterrupted mobile phone signal, alongside guaranteed WiFi internet service on all such trains. We will continue to release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access and begin the roll-out of a new 5G network, providing gigaspeed connection to your smart phone. We plan to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027.

My Views On The Conservative Party's Broadband Proposals

"We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed" is an encouraging start... but then it runs out of puff as quickly as a superfast broadband connection does. 

The pledge "19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband" is pretty meaningless as "access" isn't defined and no service performance parameters are mentioned. As "superfast broadband" is electrical signalling over copper wire, this isn't surprising.

The USO is for an underwhelming 10Mbps download speed only - this is not "high speed". This is barely adequate now, let alone by 2020. It might be irksome to the pro-Brexit faction of the Tories, but the EU is lightyears ahead already.

A voucher to be introduced for full-fibre connection for businesses means they are promising a voucher, and not the connection - is this weasely words? Again, nothing about speed of connection or what will actually be delivered. And this doesn't apply to the consumers referred to in the opening sentence - remember this: "We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed"?

Towns and cities already have fibre optic "spines", so I don't think this is anything new or startling.

5G "providing "gigaspeeds" to your smartphone". According to the recently published technical specification by the ITU, 5G will deliver in dense urban areas, TARGET experienced data rates of:

  • downlink data rate of 100Mbps and 
  • uplink at 50Mbps 

“Experienced” means real world data flows in terms of bits delivered over Layer 3. These are "megabit" speeds, not "gigabit" speeds, or "gigaspeeds" as the Tories refer to it.

Unless they are referring to the somewhat theoretical, under ideal conditions etc, "peak data rates*", the minimum requirements for which are:

  • Downlink peak data rate of 20Gbps
  • Uplink peak data rate of 10Gbps

If they are referring to this, then there's a distinct whiff of "smoke and mirrors" here. But then it's a manifesto, after all... 

Unlike manifestos, technical specs are full of details and the ITU document I'm referring to can be found here but before you rush off to read it, here's an extract: "Peak data rate is the maximum achievable data rate under ideal conditions (in bit/s), which is the received data bits assuming error-free conditions assignable to a single mobile station, when all assignable radio resources for the corresponding link direction are utilized (i.e., excluding radio resources that are used for physical layer synchronization, reference signals or pilots, guard bands and guard times)."

Marks out of 10: 4 as they made a bit of an effort, but it's basically the status quo

Liberal  Democrats

Invest to ensure that broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 have a speed of 2Gbps or more, with fibre to the premises (FTTP) as standard and unlimited usage by 2020 across the whole of the UK. SMEs should be prioritised in the roll-out of hyperfast broadband. 

Ensure that every property in the UK is provided, by 2022, with a superfast broadband connection with a download speed of 30Mbps, an upload speed of 6Mbps, and an unlimited usage cap. 

Invest £2 billion in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband across the rural UK, working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects. 

My Views On The LibDem's Broadband Proposals

This floats my boat as it's the real deal - they actually seem to get it. The marketing term "Hyperfast" is often over-hyped, but is usually regarded as 1000Mbps (1Gbps) symmetrical. If this proposal sounds familiar, it's because it's the same as the House of Lords' proposed amendments to the recent Digital Economy Bill which I wrote about here.

The insistence on 2Gbps speeds forces through the infrastructure switch from electrical signalling over copper wires to optical signalling through glass fibres all the way through to our houses a.k.a fibre optic broadband or "full-fibre" or fibre to the home (FTTH). The 30Mbps/6Mbps USO is smart too, because that's really hard to deliver in rural areas using electrical signalling which would need to also be upgraded.

They are the only party that's referenced the special case of rural broadband "working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects". This reference to "existing community-led projects" must be the remarkable B4RN project which you can read about here, but other funding options exist for rural broadband such as Gigaclear here.

Rural areas are only "special" because those pesky laws of physics of electrical signalling over copper wires simply don't allow for decent service provision where the population is geographically dispersed i.e. where the lengths of copper wires are longest, the effect of impedance is greatest and the end user experience the worstest.

However the LibDems don't mention cellular or mobile broadband using 4G or 5G, they don't mention the poor coverage we all experience on trains and how this really needs to improve.

Marks out of 10: 7 as they've used their imagination, would have been a higher score if they'd mentioned mobile.

The Green Party

I rummaged around on their website but couldn't find a 2017 manifesto, probably my bad. They do however have 10 pledges, but they don't mention broadband. This is disappointing as a 2Gbps fibre optic broadband network (which uses less energy than a copper+electrical network) such as proposed by the LibDems would make working from home a practical proposition for a lot of people, and would help with rural regeneration. Plenty of bandwidth for hi-def multi-party video conferencing and services we can barely imagine today, all of which would obviate the need to travel by (electric) car.

Marks out of 10: 0

Conclusion

If the only thing that matters to you is broadband internet access, then the LibDems are the party of choice. Of course you might say they're unelectable so they can say anything they like, but at least they've come up with an imaginative proposal. 

Broadly speaking, there really isn't much difference between Tory and Labour on broadband, as they both seem to be saying "plus ça change", so you'll have to make your voting decision between these two on something different