Red letter day for two rural broadband projects
B4RN and Thurlestone have had their applications for funds to build fibre to the premises (FTTP) networks in remote rural areas approved in principle by BDUK, the government’s broadband delivery agency.
They are expected to receive their confirmation letters today. The only thing stopping the projects now is their local county councils.
BDUK’s approval is expected to increase pressure on Lancashire in B4RN’s case, and Devon and Somerset in Thurlestone’s case to remove the proposed coverage area post codes from their BT contracts.
BT effectively has a veto on such deals. BDUK guidance says it may choose to assess the impact of removals on its existing plans before claiming compensation for the smaller contract or proposing a new deal that includes some or all of the altnets’ areas.
Michael Armitage, who speaks for the Thurlestone project, confirmed that BDUK has made a “conditional award”. “The key condition is that Connecting Devon & Somerset (CD&S) has to agree to de-scope (exclude) the Thurlestone project area postcodes from the BT procurement, which so far they’ve been ‘reluctant’ to do.”
The Thurlestone community is to meet on Tuesday evening to compare two network proposals, but Armitage says CD&S and BT are refusing to attend. CD&S and BT plan to hold a separate public meeting on 22 January 2014, at which BT Next Generation Network boss Bill Murphy and Devon Council leader John Hart may speak.
Thurlestone plans to use money from the DEFRA-controlled £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) to back bank loans plus Enterprise Investment Scheme equity plus private equity to fund a FTTP network to 1,300 premises across Thurlestone and South Huish (Hope Cove) parishes. This could be extended to Salcombe and the rest of the South Hams over time, Armitage says.
Christine Conder, who has been the public face of the B4RN project, says she hasn’t seen confirmation of BDUK’s approval.
“As with all the community/altnet projects it’s the lack of data from the councils/BT that is blocking DEFRA from releasing the money. That is a fact that won’t change. Some councils release ‘maps’ but without the data they are meaningless. I believe some councils are actively working with their communities but ours don’t seem to want to. Our original plan was for eight parishes, but I believe we are up to 21-23 now wanting to join the network, and the RCBF would have facilitated that.”
That would more than double B4RN’s original footprint of around 1400 homes/businesses to over 3,000.
Funded originally along the same lines as Thurleston, B4RN has been waiting years for RCBF money to fund the bigger project.
Well-connected blogger Philip Virgo reported correspondence from B4RN’s CEO Barry Forde that suggested Lancashire had reneged on a deal to exclude B4RN’s coverage area from its £130m next generation broadband deal with BT. Project director Andrew Halliwell refused to speak to BrokenTelephone about the alleged agreement, or a controversial fleet management deal that BT has with Lancashire County Council via a joint venture, which attracted a police investigation.
If Thurleston and B4RN get their money, they will join Rothbury in Northumberland and Fell End in Cumbria, both of which have contracted with BT for their networks, as the only RCBF beneficiaries so far.
Others are trying to join in. There are reports of more than 50 RCBF applications, nearly all of which have been turned down. One of the survivors, the Northmoor, Moreton and Bablockhythe Community Broadband Project in Oxfordshire, has just issued a state aid consultation on its plans to deliver 100% coverage at >24Mbps by 2015 with RCBF backing.
“We have some 520 homes and businesses in the project area, which is now descoped from the county plan by Oxfordshire County Council,” says spokesman Graham Shelton.
Shelton’s group has worked with West Oxfordshire District Council to manage the grant and the various steps to procurement and delivery. “(Councillors) have been, and are, hugely supportive. Ours is a very rural district with 25% home working or businesses run from home, so this initiative is highly significant to support our community,” he says.
Current broadband speeds in the Northmoor coverage area vary but are often below 1Mbps when homes are far from a street cabinet, he adds.
So far he has had expressions of interest from two network operators. “There may be scope to connect with neighbouring villages which are also outside the first phase of the county plan, and it will be for the successful bidder to follow up from the community contacts that we can provide. At this stage those villages are not descoped.”
Shelton estimates that state aid intensity to be no more than 50%. That is in stark contrast to some BT contracts where the state contributes more than two-thirds of the costs, and may run above 90% in some cases and deliver less than the altnets promise, according to Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Network Cooperative Association (INCA).