Get us the bandwidth we pay for - business tells Ofcom

THE Government should lay down minimum levels of service from broadband and mobile phone providers to prevent rural communities being put at a disadvantage, Huntingdonshire told the communications regulator Ofcom last week. The district s businesses and h

THE Government should lay down minimum levels of service from broadband and mobile phone providers to prevent rural communities being put at a disadvantage, Huntingdonshire told the communications regulator Ofcom last week.

The district's businesses and householders should no longer have to accept slow speeds, indifferent mobile coverage and shoddy customer service, business people and members of the public told senior Ofcom officials at the Great Digital Debate in St Ives on Friday.

It was the first time the regulator had ventured into the heart of any community to listen to what people's concerns and frustrations were, and it emerged from a chance encounter with a Brampton businessman at a function in Nottingham.

Graham Howell, Ofcom's secretary and its director for England, told The Hunts Post after the meeting: "It has been a really good attendance, and we've got good messages coming back and we can fit some of it into our policy. There's a limit to what Ofcom can do but we can talk to the Government. The broadband message has been made very strongly to us here."


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Mr Howell said he had been bemoaning to Terry Downing, managing director of Wisdom Communications in Brampton, over coffee at a conference Ofcom's frustration that, however much market research it did, the regulator could not discover what the man and woman in the street thought about their broadband and mobile phone services.

"Terry said: 'Leave that with me,' and here we are."

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The debate was a collaboration between Ofcom, Huntingdonshire District Council and Huntingdonshire Business Network - of which Mr Downing is vice-chairman.

For its first exposure to Huntingdonshire, the regulator turned out half a dozen senior managers, and the body language said they were listening intently, though they acknowledged that some of what rural businesses were demanding were not at present within their control.

The biggest complaints were that homes and businesses were not getting what they were paying for. Providers of mobile telephone and broadband services were using perfectly accurate, but nonetheless misleading, statistics about their coverage and bandwidth.

A mobile service might cover the whole of an area but, if small business customers could get reception in the kitchen of their homes but not in the study from which they worked, it made trading difficult.

But it was the 'up to' claims for broadband that frustrated them most. Rural businesses are often far from the telephone exchanges close to which the maximum bandwidth applies. The signal degrades the further away from the exchange a customer lives.

So the advertised "up to 8MB" that householders and businesses are paying for could actually be 500KB for a user at the end of the wire. Remote users should pay for their connections on the basis of what they actually got, they insisted.

And, when the service went down, they should not have to wait a week for someone in Bangalore to get an engineer to sort their problems while their internet-crucial businesses congealed, they told Ofcom.

But service level agreements were not part of Ofcom's regulatory régime, though it was clear the regulators wished they were.

The next generation of 'super-fast broadband' will depend on fibre-optic technology. Yet the industry is telling Ofcom that there is no economic case for upgrading more than 60 per cent of the population, according to Richard Moore, Ofcom's senior technology manager.

He gave the impression that he would be telling the industry to think about that again.

Ofcom may also be telling the Government that, until service providers are required by EU directive to deliver minimum levels of service - 500 kilobytes per second for domestic users and one or two megabytes per second for businesses were put forward as benchmarks - it would have to consider subsidising the infrastructure to prevent 30 per cent of the population being left behind by the digital future.

If these ideas are turned into Government policy, the Great Digital Debate could become another historical landmark to chalk up alongside Oliver Cromwell, John Bellingham (19th century PM Spencer Perceval's assassin) and Sir John Major in the annals of Huntingdonshire achievements.

nMore business news can be found inside our property section.

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