‘Third world’ broadband service at Edinburgh’s heart

TELECOMS giant BT has been accused of running a “third-world” broadband service in the heart of Scotland’s capital city after ruling out an upgrade to super-fast fibre-optic connections in the area.
BT are under fire for not including Edinburgh city centre in its super-fast fibre-optic upgrade programme. Picture: PABT are under fire for not including Edinburgh city centre in its super-fast fibre-optic upgrade programme. Picture: PA
BT are under fire for not including Edinburgh city centre in its super-fast fibre-optic upgrade programme. Picture: PA

The group said its Rose Street exchange – which takes in parts of Edinburgh’s George Street and Princes Street – has been excluded from a £2.5 billion upgrade programme because it “does not meet the criteria for commercial inclusion”.

Dennis Chester, owner of the Electric Circus nightclub and karaoke venue on Market Street, attacked the decision, arguing that an influx of visitors during the summer festival season means the existing network cannot cope.

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Fibre broadband operates at faster speeds than standard technology because it uses beams of light to carry information down glass tubes instead of electricity along ageing copper wires.

Research by industry regulator Ofcom shows that the average UK residential broadband speed is 14.7 megabits per second (Mbps), but Chester said that speeds in the centre of Edinburgh during the summer were often less than 1Mbps “and sometimes completely non-existent”.

He added: “This is worse than dial-up, and worse than most third world countries. The ancient BT infrastructure could just not cope, overwhelmed by demand it seems.”

However, a spokeswoman for BT – which saw its underlying pre-tax profits grow by 5 per cent to £595 million during the three months to June – said that the Rose Street exchange has a relatively-small number of residential customers, while large businesses nearby tend to have their own private networks.

She said: “Demand for even basic broadband at this exchange is at the lower end of the spectrum.”

Rival Virgin Media said that it would be able to provide business broadband to the Market Street area, although cable services may be out of bounds in some city centre streets because of its World Heritage Site status.

BT’s Rose Street exchange is surrounded by facilities at Dean, Donaldson, Fountainbridge and Waverley, which are all fibre-enabled, and it has been upgraded to offer speeds of up to 20Mbs over copper, as well as ethernet connections of up to ten gigabits per second.

The BT spokeswoman added: “Ethernet means businesses can opt for a choice of guaranteed broadband speeds over a dedicated line and across multiple sites at a fraction of the cost of comparable services provided previously by a similar, traditional private network.”

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Marco Biagi, the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, has written to communications minister Ed Vaizey, urging Westminster to develop plans to make sure the roll-out of 
fibre broadband is extended to the city centre.

He said: “Unfortunately the Scottish Government’s Step Change programme, which is designed to fund upgrades in areas of commercial failure, is not able to invest in city centres under the European state aid terms negotiated by the UK government, which were designed for rural broadband.”

BT expects fibre broadband to be extended to 85 per cent of Scottish premises by the end of 2015, rising to about 95 per cent by the end of 2017. In August, the company unveiled plans to create 150 engineering jobs following a successful tender to install connections in homes and businesses in the Highlands and Islands as part of the region’s £146m next-generation broadband project.

But Chester said: “If you want superfast broadband, in fact any broadband at all next summer, you would be better off in the Outer Hebrides or John O’Groats than in the centre of Edinburgh.”