BDUK CEO Says UK Superfast Broadband Rollout Is ‘On Track’

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Chris Townsend BDUK (2)

BDUK CEO Chris Townsend says better marketing, overhauled super connected cities vouchers and advanced plans for phase 2 and 3 will ensure it meets goals

Chris Townsend, CEO of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), says he is pleased with the progress made on the government-supported rollout of superfast broadband since assumed the role in April 2014.

BDUK has proved controversial since its inception, with critics questioning the transparency and value of the project, while others have questioned whether it is damaging competition by awarding all the money available to BT.

But the former commercial director of the London 2012 Olympic Games says BDUK is set to reach its target of 95 percent coverage by 2017 thanks to the “extremely hard work” carried out during phase one, the imminent start of phase two and the expansion of the super connected cities voucher scheme.

Chris Townsend BDUK (3)Pressing ahead

“We’ve made a lot of progress in nine months. There’s a lot to do, but we’re on track,” Townsend (pictured left) told a Westminster eForum. “These are some very, very ambitious targets and I’m sure there is some doubt as to whether these will be achieved.”

So far, two million homes and businesses have been connected thanks to 44 BDUK projects, which are adding a combined 40,000 premises per week. Townsend praises the extremely hard work already done and said phase two would involve 47 projects, boosting coverage from 90 to 95 percent by adding another one million properties.

“My overall target for phase one is 4.2 million [properties],” he said. “We’re half way there. We’re aiming to get to that figure in early 2016 and I can assure you we are slightly ahead of that target.”

So far, 12 phase two contracts have been signed, but all 47 must be completed by the end of the year if targets are to be met.

The final five percent

Townsend also provided an update on phase three of BDUK, which will see the final five percent of premises not covered by the commercial rollout of fibre or phase one or two connected through alternative technologies like satellite and LTE.

BDUK is holding a number of trials of such technologies, but also wants the likes of BT to contribute – especially in urban areas where BDUK is not allowed to intervene.

“We’re not just working on our seven pilots, we’re working hard with the industry,” he said. “I’m hoping by the middle of 2015 we will have completed these pilots so by March 2016 we can deliver a business case.”

Townsend was unable to say when funding would be released for this final stage, but said he would be lobbying the government later this year to inform them of the need to invest.

“Whatever new government we have, I will be presenting a new high level plan providing them with an update on the test pilots, promoting the fact we do need to get some funding in place,” he said. “I can’t give you an update other than a commitment.”

fibreMarketing and awareness

However Townsend admits that coverage is only part of the solution. Despite superfast broadband being available to 80 percent of the UK population, takeup is much lower due to a lack of awareness and confusion about availability. Ofcom’s latest figures suggest that just 32 percent of all connections in the UK are superfast and that rural speeds are on average a third slower than those in cities.

Education is not part of BDUK’s remit, but under his tenure, an £8 million advertising campaign has been launched, as has a national postcode checker. Townsend has justified the expenditure by claiming the economic benefits of adoption are much higher.

Similarly, he has also overhauled the Super Connected Cities voucher scheme, which provides grants for SMBs to upgrade to superfast. The initiative has been simplified and will expand to 50 cities in March. So far 10,000 vouchers have been issued, a figure which it is hoped will reach 25,000.

“The initial scheme was quite complicated, you had to go through about a dozen different stages,” he said. “When I joined, we simplified the system and found there was a distinct lack of awareness, so we switched some of the money into an advertising campaign.

“The scheme has been so successful, we’re going to roll it out to another 28 cities this financial year. It’s proved to work very well and we’re excited to take it to the next stage.”

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