There are two publicly funded projects to improve the reach of superfast broadband in rural Scotland. There is the government’s Step Change 2015 programme (albeit recently renamed after they realised that the 2015 target just wasn’t going to happen). BT has been gifted more than £530M of public money (£100.8M in Scotland, plus a local top-up of about £670,000 from Stirling Council) for this contract. Then there’s Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), which exists to help remote communities get connected. CBS appears to work well for communities who KNOW that they aren’t getting anything from BT, ever. The problem lies with communities that just don’t know if they’re going to be part of the BT rollout and who therefore can’t make sensible bids for community funding to CBS because they don’t know where they’ll be able to connect into the fast BT ‘backbone’ network and therefore how much it will cost.
Locally, Strathyre will receive fibre from Callander in the first half of 2015 and Lochearnhead will get it from Auchterarder in the second half of next year but Balquhidder has been in the position of not knowing what, if anything, it would be getting. Following BT’s and Scottish Government’s deeply unsatisfactory performance at their meeting for community councils earlier in the year, a meeting was organised for 29 September, chaired by Bruce Crawford MSP, to bring together BT, CBS, The Scottish Government and representatives of the Balquhidder community.
BT, via the government representative (BT were a no-show at the meeting – apparently their representative’s car broke down) stated that they will not be putting fibre into Balquhidder as their calculations show that putting a cabinet in the village would not significantly ‘uplift’ (their term) the speed of connection to most properties in the area. As previously noted, it likely means that, once the upgrades to Strathyre are complete, some properties in Balquhidder may well lose even their existing broadband provision.
If the residents and enterprises of Balquhidder wish to be part of the connected world, then it appears that we can:
- Lobby hard through our MSP and MP (telecommunications funding still comes from Westminster) to have this ludicrous decision reviewed. If this concerns you, please do it!
- Engage with CBS to put a project together to get Balquhidder connected, now that we know where fibre is and isn’t going to. This is already under way.
The big issue here is that BT is basing their calculations purely on whether properties in Balquhidder would be able to get superfast broadband using their own extant and ancient infrastructure. They completely ignore the existence of both CBS and other local initiatives that can take over at a cabinet and provide fast, reliable and cheap local distribution. If there was ever an example of a major public contract comprehensively breaching the spirit of the agreement and intent of the whole project, this is it. We are now in a position where a lively, active community and a whole range of businesses are being denied cost-effective (or indeed any) modern internet access, despite huge sums of our money being spent on a programme designed to provide just that. BT’s own Corporate Social Responsibility Statement includes the line, “Our aim is to help create a better world by tackling big issues where better communication can make a real difference”. Changing it to, “Take the money and run” would more accurately reflect their approach.
This is a quite astonishing situation and one I feel that reflects very poorly on both parties: the Scottish Government’s contracting and contract management and BT’s corporate short-sightedness, its failure to adapt its approach to the needs of this contract and an apparent utter lack of concern with resourcing and delivering on the commitments implicit in the contract.