Broadband Competition spreads from Shropshire to Shoreditch

We can now see the result of last year’s change of policy and leadership at BDUK accompanied by rediscovery by Ofcom to its duties as a competition regulator. Those Counties which held out from pledging everything in support of extending BT’s twenty year-old 21CN infrastructure appear now to be getting rather better offers. Sometimes BT wins the Phase 2 BDUK contracts, as in West Yorkshire or Shropshire. Sometimes Gigaclear wins, as with Gloucestershire . Sometimes the business is split (as in Essex or Berkshire). It will be interesting to see what happens next in Shropshire where the Council is co-operating with INCA on an event to help local businesses look at using the voucher programme to meet their needs. Shropshire is, arguably, one of the most difficult counties to serve using anything other than a mix of satellite and terrestrial radio. I do not therefore envy the council the task it faces in getting value for money – other than from mixing an extension of the current BT network with radical alternatives – perhaps it needs the local equivalent of B4RN (*).

Meanwhile Devon and Somerset has decided on a rematch, having failed to get a sufficiently attractive bid from BT.  As with most (but not all) other rural areas, it may not be practical to have a commercially viable service without council money to help prevent social and geographic exclusions – but competition between suppliers for the public funds available, perhaps leading to a mix and match of suppliers and technologies, is more likely to be able to serve ALL residents and businesses, at affordable cost, than the simple extension of a legacy network (likely to be obsolete within the decade as the end-game for IPV4 spreads from the Pacific to the USA and the main Internet players accelerate their transitions to IPV6 accordingly).

At this point the BT response varies. At its best, (when faced by well-advised Councils who are serious about value for money) it produces imaginative new solutions involving a mix of technologies and business models, as in Glasgow (using the infrastructure investment for the wifi for the Commonwealth Games to provide supported access via community centres) or in Cornwall (using wireless and satellite to achieve its targets for cover).  

At its worst … you can read Hansard for the complaints about attempts to stop councils from comparing notes (I still do not understand how “commercial in confidence” can be applied to services in receipt of “state aid”) or doing joint deals to get better value for money than any silo-based Whitehall procurement.

Meanwhile when it comes to urban broadband we can see City Fibre, HyperOptic and ITS expanding the number of locations to which they offer true fibre while Manchester is about to benefit from head-to-head competition between Virgin and BT. We should also not that   Wimax has shown its potential when everything goes pear-shaped   At a recent event on cyber-insurance I asked whether dropping bombs down a manhole cover to set off all the alarms in the area so that you could rob a safety deposit company counted as a cyber-crime. On that note (and the implications for those who are more concerned with reliability and resilience than raw speed) I will stop.

(*) I remind readers that I am not only a shareholder in B4RN but am looking forward to receiving a dividend cheque – much earlier than I expected – although I confess I will probably frame it rather than drink it. I do, however, also declare an interest in the choices available  to GigaplusArgyll . I used to be able to download e-mails, albeit very slowly, using the 2G signal from a mast the other side of Loch Scridain. Now thanks to modern bloatware I can barely get the headings before losing the signal. The absence of reliable communications also adds an extra frisson to the organisation of the Isle of Mull Rally

  

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Dear Philip, the Shropshire Phase 2 contract with BT wasn't an open competition. It was simply an extension of the BDUK framework. However, it was a fairly small contract because Shropshire refuses to fully match the BDUK grant si less momey for completing the job suggests that we will receive something less satisfactory. Much has been made of Shropshire's difficult topography. There are some quite remote areas, but the difficulties are largely a myth put around by BT and Shropshire Council to justify BT's approach of cherry -picking the profitable areas. Many of the places that won't be served by BT's rollout are in gentle river valleys with roads running their length - not difficult at all.

I can't see vouchers helping the rural areas much. They can't be used for satellite (thank goodness) and will probably be of most use in semi-urban parts of the county where Shropshire Council (correctly) refuses to subsidise, but BT holds out in the hope of a subsidy. The only way vouchers could help rural areas is if SMEs aggregated them and brought in a network builder - preferably mixed FTTP and wireless.

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Gentle river valleys with roads running their length can be very expensive unless either the landowners not only waive access charges but also do the trenching on their own land (to reduce complications with road works) or the fibres are run overhead (perhaps replacing older and heavier telephone lines). Neither option appears open to BT, Hence my comment on the need for a B4RN equivalent.

The real value of vouchers is where they are indeed used to aggregate demand and enable new build. But I still do not understand why you are so opposed to satellite. It may not be very good at handling Skype but is perfectly adequate for most other business purposes. Over 3% of global satellite traffic is actually on-line game players in isolated locations round the world (e.g. Call of Duty - I shudder to think who is actually playing who, whether they know it or not)

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I should perhaps have added that the Mull and Iona may look to be harder to cover than a series of rolling wooded valleys but (save for the problem of lightning strikes and storm damage to the most obvious mast sites) could turn out to be significantly easier. We would probably settle for parity with Coll http://blogs.scotland.gov.uk/digital/2014/08/08/isle-of-coll-mobile-phone-project/ although the reality is once again less than the publicity

http://visitcoll.co.uk/Coll.php?p=broadbandoncoll

Note the comments on the variability of the cables used by BT in the past and also the effect of lightning strikes. The former will almost certainly be a factor in Shropshire. Is the latter?

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Dear Philip, Certainly gentle river valleys are expensive if you have to trench them (but lessvso once claw-back, underspends, inflated costs am

and the missing BT contribution are factored in) but fibre between existing poles is perfectly feasible. BT told us it was techically impossible and very expensive, neither of which we believed. Of course it may be more expensive if their poles are old and rotten, but that's simply lack of maintenance on their part and shouldn't be paid for by public subsidy. And If BT is serious about abandoning copper in the next few years, presumably they'll string fibre between poles in many places. They wouldn't entertain supplying fibre to a self-dig solution, refused to give us a quote for self-financing, and wouldn't entertain feeding fibre through a disused water main that the water authority said we could use free of charge. Regarding satellite, there's a lag, they throttle speeds at peak times, and it gets very expensive once data limits are exceeded - not good for families with multiple users. It's a work around for some, but users I know are far from happy with it, especially as larger villages with low percentages of SMEs that were perfectly happy with 8 Mb were upgraded to "up to 80", but where FTTC didn't reach, and the concentration of SMEs was far greater (50-60%) yet speeds are still way below 2mb and unworkable at times, they may be offered something inferior. This from what was originally a "rural" broadband rollout.

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Philip, In devon & Somerset, it was not the case that CDS failed to get a sufficiently attractive bid from the only company allowed to bid, BT. It was because the CDS Board failed to raise the full match funding and stupidly believed they could get the same from BT at a price 25% lower that BDUK estimated it would cost.

In the DCC/SCC Press Release of June 29, Messr’s Leadbetter & Hall seem to have forgotten than it was £22.75M that BDUK allocated to CDS in January 2014 for the SEP Phase 2 programme. Fully matched this would produce £45.5M, not £35M. It is not surprising therefore that BT refused to supply 95% coverage for £10M less than it was understood would be required, 18 months ago. What is more, having abandoned an open market tender process for Phase 2 last November in favour of negotiating an exclusive contract with BT, the CDS Board have now failed to agree that contract and believe they have the right to just go back to where they were last November and start all over again.

CDS abandoned the 26 suppliers who attended the Phase 2 bidder day last November such that they were then not even allowed to put their bids on the table. If I was a supplier, I would not touch a new open tender from CDS with a barge pole! What this means is that the CDS Board have wasted the best part of a year on an abortive contract negotiation with BT and now talk about achieving only 95% coverage by 2021/22.

Devon and Somerset will be the worst served counties in the UK for fast broadband. We are already the only counties not to have a Phase 2 contract in place….with the exception of the two National Parks for which a Phase 2 broadband contract is now in place at a public cost of £4.6M. This would explain some of the missing £10M, but spending such a large sum on the 3% of the Devon & Somerset’s population that live in the National Parks, has it seems, contributed CDS to not having enough funding for the rest of the two counties.

It is also known that many District Councils have for months been telling the CDS Board that they would not contribute towards Phase 2 match funding if CDS would not tell the District Councils which of their Council Tax payers would benefit from that investment and when they would benefit. Since this information has not been provided to the Districts (at BT’s insistence, it is believed) it is not surprising that they will not “play ball” on the match funding. All of this cannot be a surprise for the CDS Board.

Rather than simply assuming they can start all over again, because their chosen exclusive supplier, BT would not deliver a £45M contract for £35M, they should look at themselves. Specifically, the two Board chairmen, (Messr’s Norrey and Flaherty) and the two lead Councillors, (Messr’s Hall and Leadbetter) are now responsible for the fact that rural taxpayers in Devon & Somerset may have to wait another 5 or more years for a fast broadband service. They do not have the right to simply assume they can start over again with another open tender process as if nothing has happened.

The Devon Place Scrutiny Committee needs to investigate this fiasco with urgency and the CDS Board needs to be disbanded and replaced by a new Board comprising people who actually know what they are doing. Only by taking this action before any new open tender process is started will taxpayers and suppliers have confidence that Connecting Devon & Somerset can deliver a Phase 2 Superfast Broadband programme . - See more at: https://www.devonnewscentre.info/decision-for-the-second-stage-roll-out-of-the-connecting-devon-somerset-superfast-broadband-programme/#sthash.KxFfTA9M.dpuf

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Would I be correct in summarising this as: "The CDS Board dropped the competitive tender in November thinking they would get a better deal from BT by negotiating privately. It failed and is now hoping the other players will bid again".

If so, given how the market has changed over the past six months, it will be interesting to see how many are willing to do so and on what terms.

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The issues of funding do not affect the marginal cost of trenching when you have to pay for both contractors and wayleaves. That appears to be the main reason BT's costs as so high. I would, however, be interested to know why BT would not even consider offering assistance for the kind of self-funded, self-dig, solutions they claim to be supporting elsewhere. Is it because they do not think there is the critical mass of support to make them successful or to generate the level of traffic for which it is worth providing an interface?

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Philip, you are right, because the 26 suppliers who attended the open market bidder day in Exeter on November 13, 2014 were treated disgracefully by CDS who tried to wind the meeting up after 20 minutes and then waited until after the date in January by which tenders should have been submitted, to tell these companies that with the exception of BT, they would not even be allowed to put their bids on the table. The numpties on the CDS Board seem to think they will come running back when they announce another tender, but there is nothing to prevent them getting into bed with BT yet again, hence it time to get rid of them and bring in a new Board who know what they are doing and have the needs of Devon & Rural taxpayers as their No1 priority....something the present incompetent Board seem to have forgotten about.

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Dear Philip, they wouldn't say, but I suspect the latter. They just weren't bothered despite 60% of premises home to an enterprise of some form, and a take-up rate very likely around that figure.

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