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Submission on superfast broadband to House of Lords

Mar 23 2012 Posted by Daniel Yates

Pitchup.com has made the following submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications on the government's superfast broadband strategy, an Inquiry to be conducted between March and June 2012.

Dear Chairman,

1. My company Pitchup.com is a start-up that allows users to book online for campsites and caravan parks, a sector that accounts for £2bn of domestic holiday spend, nearly all in rural areas.

2. According to recent data from the OECD, the UK is the most advanced developed economy for ecommerce in the world. Yet figures from VisitEngland in 2010 showed that only 28% of campsites and caravan parks were bookable online, compared to 79% of the more urban hotel sector. Additional research by VisitEngland suggests that around 70% of domestic holiday bookings were made online in 2011, and based on VisitEngland's findings we estimate that £1.7bn of domestic holidays will be booked online this year. During 2011, sites available to book on Pitchup.com received up to 250 online bookings.

3. Slow and unreliable internet connections mean that many caravan park and campsite owners are unable or reluctant to offer pitches for sale online, with speeds as low as 200kbps reported as well as outages of a week or more. As a result, while larger groups such as Center Parcs are achieving online booking rates of more than 70%, many smaller sites or those in remote locations face a shrinking market for 'offline' bookings. In addition, with smartphone penetration reaching 50% in some demographic groups and growth in bandwidth-hungry devices such as the iPad, owners are unable to meet the surging demand for wifi while on holiday, with a growing expectation that it should be free, as in urban retail outlets. Plainly, numerous other aspects of running a rural business are also affected, from procurement to submission of VAT returns.

4. Serious doubts have been expressed by the ISP industry and telecommunications experts that the government's broadband subsidy will allow the UK to meet its ambition to provide the best superfast broadband in Europe.

The 'scorecard' for assessment of this aim, the initial version of which was due in early 2011, is not yet available. However, in its December 2011 ranking of fibre to the home (FTTH) penetration submitted to the Committee, the UK is ranked last among G7 countries by the FTTH Council, and does not feature among the top 20 countries. This is partly because BT Infinity's fibre roll-out is largely of the 'fibre to the cabinet' (FTTC) variety, and we note from the FTTH Council's evidence that UK is forecast to remain last after 2020.

According to Akamai's State of the Internet report, the UK's global ranking for internet speed has fallen from 17th to 27th in the year to Q3 2011, achieving speeds more than three times slower than South Korea. For upload speeds - important for cloud computing among other applications - our ranking is 59th. BT's Infinity roll-out has also been subject to widespread delay even in urban areas, with as many as 60% of cabinets passed over and delays of over a year between the activation of exchanges and cabinets at my local exchange in London.

Industry experts Enders Analysis were quoted in the FT in 2010 as follows:

'Broadband expert Ian Watt at Enders Analysis believes the government funds will only get broadband to three-quarters of homes. "It's more likely that high-speed broadband will be available to the centre of the village, for example to a school, library or post office. We don't see the subsidy being enough to get it to everyone."'

Similar schemes such as Australia's national broadband roll-out are benefiting from a multi-billion-pound subsidy, a sum discussed in the UK in the context of HS2 but not a 21st-century information infrastructure which would ease the strain on our transport network and let Britain capitalise on its leadership position in this sector.

5. The government has already deferred the universal service commitment from 2012 to 2015 by which time, on current trends, fewer than 20% of domestic holiday bookings will be made 'offline'. The CLA's Can't Get Online Week campaign called for an enhanced broadband commitment by that date, which we support, but we would like to see a commitment that genuinely places the UK among the leading nations for broadband coverage, bandwidth and speed. 4G coverage has been proposed as a stop-gap solution, but mobile internet coverage outside and indeed within urban areas can be extremely poor. It is plainly absurd, and a huge opportunity for growth, that UK consumers lead the world in propensity to book online when our broadband infrastructure ranks so lamentably. In the meantime, rural tourism businesses - the dominant sector in many parts of the UK - will continue to lose share to their better-connected competitors, some potentially irretrievably.

6. This submission is an edited version of an email to the chairman of the House of Commons Culture Committee on 3rd November, to which no reply has been received.

Daniel Yates
Managing Director, Pitchup.com

Winner, Travel Journalists' Award for the Best UK Travel Website of the Year, British Travel Press Awards 2011

(updated 25/1/12)

See also How to speed up your rural broadband