Are local councils falling out of love with BDUK?

Is a groundswell of public anger causing local government to fall out of love with the BDUK Superfast Britain project?

The Western Daily Press reported this week that Wiltshire County Council is considering its options and may not sign up to the second phase of a £35m BDUK deal to deploy superfast broadband in the West Country.

Council deputy leader John Thomson described the project as a “nightmare” partly because consumer expectations of how fast their internet would actually be were set impossibly high by the fantasy world depicted in BT’s TV advertising.

The reality of quite how bad fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) can be if you’re not lucky enough to live right next to the cabinet was swiftly brought home to many Wiltshire residents when it turned out that ‘superfast’ was really ‘onlyslightlyfasterifthat’.

Local stakeholder Geoff Preston branded BDUK a “scam” and accused the council and BT of being disingenuous with their pledge to get superfast to 91% of county homes by 2016.

Thomson told the paper: “It has been a nightmare, mainly because of people wanting to get superfast broadband now, and wanting it to be faster than it will be.

“To be honest, I’m not over-happy with the deal, but at the time it was the only one in town. There have been success stories, and some towns and villages are very happy with the result – but others not so much.

“There is a second part to the deal to the more rural places that we have applied for the money for, but it may well be there are other opportunities and other technologies that we can go for, that will provide a better service and give more value for money,” said Thomson

Already, some Wiltshire communities have taken to organising their own broadband services. The village of Hankerton installed a Wi-Fi solution provided by Cotswold Wireless, and 10 other villages have come together to form a co-operative with the intention of going in on a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) solution.

Wiltshire may be considering its options, but The Full Spectrum knows of at least one council that has already gone in with the altnets.

West Oxfordshire District Council recently supported a community broadband project in Northmoor, obtaining £186,000 worth of funding to install a Gigaclear FTTP solution from the government’s Rural Community Broadband Fund, jointly funded by DEFRA and BDUK.

Incidentally, it was Gigaclear’s first ever use of public money. Up to now it has relied entirely on private funding.

And it was to Oxfordshire that I travelled last month to meet with Gigaclear and community stakeholders in the nearby villages of Greater Otmoor, to see an FTTP project in action. You can read the full feature right here, by the way.

One thing that quickly became very clear to me, chatting to the stakeholders at the Abingdon Arms, was that, like in Wiltshire, they felt abandoned and frankly a bit cheated by BDUK. The money on offer vanished “like a technological Marie Celeste,” said one, once it was realised quite how difficult bringing FTTC to the Otmoor area would be.

BDUK was a real red herring. If we’d just ignored it from the start, we’d have saved ourselves several months and a lot of trouble,” another stakeholder from the Otmoor group told me.

But what also struck me were remarks made by Gigaclear sales and marketing boss Joe Frost, who told me all about how his firm selects which projects it can support.

Here’s the quote: “The attitude of local councils helps us prioritise, too. It is nice to know that places where we plan to build won’t be overtaken by state aid. A lot of councils are now on board with this and realise there is not enough money in BDUK to address the problem, so are in-filling with people like us or wireless or satellite solutions.”

So are councils falling out of love with BDUK and BT? Well, obviously two councils out of hundreds does not a trend make, and there are clearly notable successes for BDUK as a steady stream of press releases purports to make clear.

But as the poor publicity around the scheme continues to spread among vocal rural campaigners, things are certainly looking better and better for the altnets. I doubt I’m alone in thinking the examples of West Oxfordshire and Wiltshire won’t be the only ones we see as the deadline on BDUK’s 95% superfast coverage target draws closer and closer.