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Chapel Lawn, Bucknell, Shropshire. Its quest for fibre access!
1:18pm - 23/02/2015

This half-term my son dragged me up a short category 2 climb from Norton near Presteigne in Wales, across to Bucknell in Shropshire, and gently along to Chapel Lawn, to meet Patrick Cosgrove, a local broadband campaigner.  The latter was my idea to give my lungs a chance to recover.  Why can we not live here Dad?  Your recent homework, Photoshop files of 30Mbytes and wetransfer.com would never reach school, but hold that thought!  Certainly  I would not try it at Patrick’s house where his connection speed has reduced from 2.33 Mb to 1.67 in the last 18 months, and his is by no means the worst in this area.

It is a sign of the progress of the BDUK and Local roll-out projects that Openreach trucks were busy in Presteigne laying a 288 fibre spine, while an Openreach engineer was busy on tie cable duty at the new Bucknell VDSL Cabinet on the same day.  Such is a cycle ride in the countryside these days, no police, no electricity trucks,  no water repairs, just Openreach. 

Presteigne and perhaps Bucknell would be regarded as places where some public subsidy would be needed to help BT put long fibre spines in place provided this was not done previously to connect schools.  Financial support for building cabinets would be minimal as the housing estates suggest cabinets would be serving more than 200 hundred homes and thus the take-up risk and gap funding ought to be less.  BT’s offer of £1bn matched funding ought to play a significant part in equipping housing estates in these towns with fibre cabinets.  As the cabinets only need to be partially equipped to serve the 20% early adopters this should leave a good deal of funding to go further, but how far? 

The Presteigne exchange work is beginning now, and the road to Norton is ducted, so let’s hope Norton is included as well.  It should be, given the latest NAO ( NAO doc ref 17767.pdf) finding that the average cost per cabinet before BT contribution has been recorded at £21,000,  almost one third of the budget available per cabinet in Wales,  and less than half the amount in the indicative contract price for Shropshire.  Even allowing for Shropshire to be a little more difficult,  Shropshire should now know it has more money available from phase 1 and can with BT plan a more complete rollout.

The road from Norton to Bucknell, including a long stretch of the Welsh-English border road is definitely in the last 5%, but with VDSL providing good service 1 kilometre up these hills, it leaves the isolated farmsteads that either need to build their own fibre extensions on their land, or access to a 4G based solution or satellite.  The difference between value for money and being ripped off on the UK’s £1.7bn rural broadband programme is dictated by places like Norton and Chapel Lawn and how well the communities in the surrounding valleys are then supported and permitted to access the heavily subsidised fibres when they arrive. 

The community extensions and BT’s willingness to support such innovation is built within every Local Authority contract.  How well these clauses are being enforced will be largely down to people like Patrick Cosgrove who understand enough and are organised enough to calculate the consequences of being excluded.  Chapel Lawn,   where Patrick lives is much less rugged valley than its Welsh counterpart.  The 3 miles from Bucknell is as pleasant a meander as one would wish.   However Chapel Lawn and thus the surrounding hills and valleys are currently not in BT’s roll out plan.  The rollout stops at Bucknell.

If we now know the NAO have identified that BT’s costs models were inflated by 38%, (Subsidy in bid > £40k, actual cost less than £25k) and these are state aid contracts,  then why would anything be stopped?  At the very minimum why would Chapel Lawn not be on a reserve list?  State aid intensity for Shropshire is 82% and the BT contribution is self-certified which means we have to take it on trust.  The identified actual cost suggests Shropshire CC is paying all costs then why would BT tell Patrick his area is not economic; BT is not paying. 

Furthermore, only 22,000 premises have been passed by the Shropshire project served by an estimated 110 cabinets at the time of the NAO finding in September 2014.  The estimated 110 cabinets installed to date would have only costed between £2.75m-£3.3m of the £16-£18m of public funds the Shropshire CC has managed to gather together and before BT’s contribution is counted.  Why at this stage would Chapel Lawn be excluded, given the BT representatives must know of the inflated cost models?   It gets worse!  Why would Patrick be told by BT that fibre over poles is not a standard practice when it is becoming so in many counties,  including Cornwall, Surrey and Cumbria.  BT have priced fibre builds over existing infrastructure (duct or pole) at £2 a metre in the fibre on demand product that was specifically designed for this particular scenario.  Terminating fibre on two manifolds in Chapel Lawn so FTTP could be ordered, with additional fibres available for the community to extend into the upper valley provided either at their own expense or with help from the county as a separate procurement, is not outrageous but practical and within the terms of the contract provided the money is available,  which with the latest revelations from the NAO must be the case.  The lower costs identified will be in addition to the clawback funds and any decision to re-use or divert the premiums paid for the Universal Service Commitment to extend fibre access further.

Now that the smoke is beginning to clear on the funding, how do you force a reluctant BT with its hands on the money to perform work for which it has little appetite?  Managing the flow of funds is absolutely key.   I would suggest the 15 -20 premises in Chapel Lawn need to act as one and agree they will buy FTTP,  while acting as a host with an alternative provider or community provision  for onward extension up the valley and beyond.  Whether these onward connections connect directly or indirectly through a wholesale backhaul connection remains to be seen.  This scenario will need to be worked through several thousand times nationally so Chapel Lawn is as good as anywhere to start.  Given the FTTP manifolds are now visible on Surrey poles, and fibre over poles serving such communities is common in Cornwall, then combining these things is not that hard once the decision is made to do it.  BT and the Shropshire CC are free to make demands of the community in guaranteeing demand and making a contribution to the connection charges. The communities need should not be ignored given the monies committed and those now identified by the NAO as being inappropriately modelled.

How far is enough in rolling out NGA given the budgets?  It is not places like Presteingne and Bucknell but the Nortons and Chapel Lawns  equipped with the extras that allows communities to extend the network further into the rural hinterland.  Of course it is not economic and we are past the point where BT might contribute anything but goodwill, but the latter would be very welcome.  Fell End in Cumbria was a far more disperse community to serve than Chapel Lawn so it should be possible.  I also thought Shoreditch in London’s TechCity would be straightforward.  It was in the end but it still took many, many months of determined effort to navigate those interested in maintaining the status quo and denying customers the potential to access world class connectivity.  Chapel Lawn and places like it will get there if the community keep asking questions and remains organised.  The money is available but SCC needs to challenge every invoice and keep demanding evidence of BT’s contribution, so only a proportion of the actual costs not payments on milestones are paid. Fibre access is proving more do-able than anyone imagined, and this is why BT corporately find it so hard.  Fibre access delivers more capacity,  more throughput at a lower cost once installed. 

The next step in reclaiming the original Ministerial ambition of being best in Europe,  rather than being just marginally better than the French or the Germans as preferred by Ofcom,  the UK independent regulator,  will be the Oxera report on the UK’s compliance with the EU state aid measure.  If Oxera is an independent agent,  then it will build upon the revelations of the two NAO reports and deliver a written record of the cabinets delivered to September 2014 and actual total subsidies  (central, local and EU funds) which BT has recorded in its accounts.  Then a proper assessment of the subsidies paid to date  can be made against what should be a proportion of the total cost.   This will contribute to the  ongoing action to counter BT’s decision to abuse its monopoly position in the early phase of these contracts.   If Oxera does not add to the detail already gleaned from two NAO studies and three Public Account Committee hearings,  but restricts itself to a qualitative assessment of the statements in the measure and the existence of processes and a sample of observed costs without ever referring to what monies have been paid for the cabinets installed,  then the collective efforts of Local Authorities will not be helped.  Let’s hope for greater transparency, so many many Chapel Lawns can receive the connectivity upgrades they need to help sustain their communities.

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