Like many other rural Scottish communities, our problem is geography: having a fairly small but highly dispersed population strung out along the loch sides and side glens. Our core funding from Community Broadband Scotland will cover the capital expenditure and setup for our external connection and at least the bulk of our costs for our backbone within the glen, which is great. However, connecting the outlying clusters of properties (most of them farms) might be pushing the limits of available funding.
So we’ve been relying for that on applications to the government’s broadband voucher scheme, which gives businesses up to £3,000 to connect to next-generation broadband. That scheme was (notice the use of past tense) based on a £40M pot of money, with a close of 31 March 2016. Obviously though, the actual close of the scheme would be determined by the available funds. We were warned about a month ago that the pot was being depleted at quite a rate so have been busily finalising costs for our network build so that we and our suppliers could come up with a sensible figure against which applications could be made. Yesterday, I had a phone call from one of the local scheme administrators, to warn us that we needed to get a move on as the money was being used up rapidly. Almost simultaneously there came a press release from Stirling Council to say that all applications should be in by 1 December. Which was fine, as we were aiming for the end of October.
Then, late yesterday afternoon came this: a complete suspension of the scheme because all funds have been allocated.
Now this does potentially blow something of a hole in our ability to get large parts of our area connected to the backbone network we’re planning. So we’re busily looking at alternatives.
This is in an environment where the core national projects (BDUK and Digital Scotland) are poorly conceived and contracted: they effectively throw public money at a private monopoly to put in place an outdated and inappropriate infrastructure (FTTC), one whose architecture simply doesn’t support the geography of much of the project area. Joined-up thinking between these projects and the increasingly important ‘fill-in‘ projects such as CBS and – until today – the Broadband Voucher Scheme is notable by its absence, as is community engagement from BT and Openreach.
The complexity, mutual contradictions and fragmentation of these projects a make it even harder to plan and deliver on a community broadband initiative. But we keep going and will find a way through – this is a fundamental requirement for the viability of communities in rural Scotland.