UK ISPs Struggle with the Cost of Keeping 20CN Rural Broadband Alive - ISPreview UK
The MD of Andrews and Arnold (AAISP), Adrian Kennard, has warned that the cost of continuing to support customers that have few other options than to connect via an ‘up to’ 8Mbps capable ADSL line on BT’s old 20th Century Network (often present in rural areas), has become too expensive to maintain.

People in remote rural areas and some isolated urban locations, where broadband speeds can still be incredibly slow, often complain that they are forced to pay a higher price and yet still receive a slower service than if they were able to live elsewhere. It’s a long running and quite understandable gripe.

However delivering the necessary infrastructure and capacity into such sparse and small communities is disproportionately expensive, not least due to the fact that commercial operators like BT often face a dramatically longer wait for any return on their investment. This is why ISPs can charge significantly more if you happen to be stuck on a 20CN line.

Never the less BT has spent the past few years upgrading many of their old 20CN areas to the newer 21st Century Network (21CN) platform, which is a useful precursor to faster ‘up to’ 24Mbps ADSL2+ lines and more affordable capacity. In some 20CN areas it’s even possible to skip right to FTTC (VDSL) “fibre broadband” and forget ADSL2+ altogether.

Sadly some areas still have little option but to take a 20CN line (except for a rather unappealing Satellite alternative) and this is fast becoming difficult for smaller providers to maintain, unlike bigger operators where the economics of scale can provide a partial safety net.

Adrian Kennard said:

“The problem is made worse by the fact that BT charge a small fortune for back-haul for 20CN circuits. To put it in to context I could pay a transit provider that will guarantee no packet loss sending packets to thousands of interconnect points around the globe at a rate of under £1/Mb/s/month, but BT charge £138/Mb/s/month to send packets “best efforts” to a few hundred 20CN only telephone exchanges in the UK.

The big issue is that we have now got to the stage, after the latest batch of 20CN to 21CN regrades (which was around 1/3 of our remaining 20CN lines) that 20CN is making a significant loss for us.

We have worked out that on average, what we pay BT for the ADSL line and the bandwidth, is now around £60/month (plus VAT) per 20CN line. We have customers paying only £20/month on our older units tariff, £25/month on Home::1, and as little as £12.20/month where it is an extra line on units tariff. Yes, we do have people paying more for higher usage, but it is clear that overall we are now making a serious loss on the few hundred 20CN lines we have left.

We have to do something…”
The fact that AAISP is already a fairly expensive broadband provider, which prides itself on delivering a good quality of service and strong technical support, only magnifies the cost problem. Unfortunately none of the potential solutions are especially appealing, such as abandoning 20CN altogether (i.e. forcing subscribers to move elsewhere) or perhaps running 20CN based services under some sort of complicated non-profit model (i.e. customers would probably pay more and bills might become more confusing).

The challenges are by no means unique to AAISP and this remains one of the key reasons why even bigger ISPs tend to charge customers significantly more if they’re stuck in a 20CN area, although to date we haven’t seen many that have opted to abandon those users. However TalkTalk did recently sell off most of their old off-net broadband base, which caused a fair bit of anger.

Kennard has now asked for feedback and the initial responses appear to be mixed, with some suggesting that it would be better to abandon 20CN altogether and others pleading not to do it or to adopt the non-profit approach. Either way it looks like AAISP’s reputation may soon be tested.

At the end of the day we are only talking about an ever shrinking number of premises and around 97% of the UK should still be put within reach of BT’s superfast FTTC/P network by 2019 (the figure today is a little over 90%), but as ever there will always be a few left over.

The good news is that BT are still continuing to move old 20CN areas to the newer 21CN platform or FTTC/P, although the pace has slowed as the economic challenges rise. This is also one of the reasons why the Government’s proposed 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) is so important because it could help to provide a solution for such areas and encourage network upgrades, although even if it’s introduced in 2017/18 then the legally-binding measures might not actually be enforced until 2020.

UPDATE 8:25am

Adrian has noted that there appears to be a rebate for some of the 20CN bandwidth on 20CN only exchanges, which means that the ISP “gets a lot closer to breaking even than we expected, for now.”

However the reprieve may only last “for a few months” and the “underlying problem remains … so, at some point, probably this year, we have to come up with a solution for how we handle the last 20CN lines. Right now, we’ll leave pricing unchanged,” said Adrian.