North Skye, BCB, CBS and R100

In March 2017, following a second failed procurement run through Community Broadband Scotland, we formally withdrew from that public funding process and reverted to seeking de minimis (up to €200,000) public support for our project. This followed more than three years effort in engaging with CBS, and that after its taking two years to establish whether or not we would qualify for funding. So the decision was taken with the greatest reluctance, not least because doing so would create a significant shortfall in our project budget.

Now, a parallel community project, with similar goals to ourselves and itself with a great deal of expertise, North Skye Broadband, has also been forced to withdraw from the public funding process, issuing this press release, one that we could have issued practically unchanged to describe our own experience.

In our case, the decision itself was fairly easy, as CBS had imposed arbitrary conditions on our procurement at the last minute, conditions which actually made it impossible for any bidder to provide a compliant solution, so there was no point in wasting further months of time on following a ‘checklist’ process which could only result in failure. A meeting which was billed as an opportunity for an ‘off-the-record’ exchange of views about how we could mutually progress things turned out to simply be an opportunity for CBS management to try to dictate – with zero flexibility – the path we had to follow towards failure. At that point there was nowhere to go save out.

We did however have a fallback position for our own project, in that we had already established a relatively short backhaul route to the Cultybraggan bunker via partnership with the ISP Bogons and had the serendipity of EE paying Openreach for the installation of a fibre feed to the centre of our glen, for the new Emergency Services Network 4G mast.

Those made it possible for us to immediately move to our “Plan B”, something that had been in development in the background since it first became obvious that the CBS process was likely to fail.

So, rather than a single build of the entire network under a public procurement (which would have in any case caused resourcing problems for a project based on volunteer labour), we are able to revert to our original intention to build the network in realistic phases: that does take a bit longer, but means we can take volunteer effort as and when we can get it and adjust our build and timings to suit.

This does however leave a funding hole for our network, and even the relatively modest sums that we have been unequivocally promised and are now seeking from CBS have been conspicuously not forthcoming. Fortunately, our support from Stirling Council, LEADER and Bogons has been more concrete and we have been able to move forward with the start of our build. Since then we have progressed things to the point of having a live feed in the next few weeks, with the first segments of our gigabit network to be lit shortly thereafter.

But now we see yet another community project which has suffered from almost exactly the same failures of strategy, leadership, process and capability in the very public bodies whose stated mission is to support projects such as ours and NSB’s. Another local project, in The Trossachs, has already collapsed for related reasons and we are in regular communication with other projects who appear to be suffering the same slow-motion fate.

R100

What no-one can now do is accept the platitudes around the NEXT government project, R100, which is aimed at addressing the failures of every other project to date (failings which it does indeed illuminate), for the most part by following a very similar approach: one with a scandalous poverty of ambition and a model which, at first glance, is aimed squarely at feeding yet more public money to the incumbent monopoly, to deliver further iterations of obsolete and inappropriate technologies.

It does appears (we’re still trying to find out details) that R100 actually excludes community-led projects such as ourselves, NSB or even B4RN. Our experience leads us to assume a deep-rooted government/civil service aversion to anyone who isn’t seen as a ‘safe’ corporate. Ironically, it’s those ‘safe’ corporates, approved and contracted by CBS, who have been going bust of late, leaving entire areas in the lurch – AB Internet being the current example.

Most of the genuine innovation and nearly all of the world class service delivery in the UK is being driven by smaller commercial providers and – especially in rural areas – the ‘alt-nets’ and community projects. For R100 to exclude these for no other reason than a cultural discomfort with and fear of dealing with community projects will be continue to be massively damaging to both the rural culture and economy. So forgive us if we, and every other community, display very little confidence there.

At BCB, we are at least at the fortunate stage of being about to deliver what we’ve fought so hard for, and we wish every other community that’s been blighted by bureaucracy all the best in moving things forward.


Here then is North Skye Broadband’s press release. The original is here

NSB-Press-release-20-July-2017-FB

17 thoughts on “North Skye, BCB, CBS and R100”

  1. The only hope for rural areas is to JFDI. The government is guided by eejits. The politicians know nothing. The multimillion pound telco lobby convinces them that they have to cut out the altnets and give the money to openretch because they are ‘safe’. There is no way a civil servant will stick their neck out. The politicians want an easy life. The OR legal dept will make sure their backs are covered. Just Flippin Do IT yourselves has always been the answer.

  2. Hi Richard… yes, I can confirm that, as the latest R100 document invites bids from suppliers based on the 2016 National Broadband Scheme, community groups can only be the procurer, i.e. the intermediary through which State Aid is passed on to the winning bidder. It cannot either own or operate the network and customers contract with the supplier for service, not with the intermediary.

    So, all of the profit goes to the supplier (if it doesn’t go bust, of course…).

    1. The altnets won’t go bust. If they had government support administered properly there would be more of them, and that is what openreach are frightened of. Every altnet can expect to be overbuilt by openreach, but they needn’t worry, this just gives customers more choice, and they choose the altnet. It is a guarantee of connectivity to start an altnet. If you drive round the villages where B4RN work you can see bt cabinets popping up in them all. They put a pcp and a fibre cab in. What a waste of taxpayers money. And the government fiddle whilst rome burns. And villages without altnet activity still sit and wait out the superfarce.

      1. I completely agree: as part of our submission to R100, I argued for a national Backbone to Network Edge infrastructure, creating a series of localish open access points for backhaul, that could be used by any player (big, alt or community) to provide cost-effective access to whatever initiative was needed to serve any given area. That would dramatically change the economics for local projects, effectively allowing them to do the stuff they have control over – the dig/lay and service provision and stimulating yet more bottom-up activity. Of course a service like that would be best delivered by a nationalised Openreach. And of course, we were ignored there. The only thing that would make a difference to anything that the Civil Service is involved with is a massive cultural change and an influx of people with the experience and attitude to focus on delivery, not just on backside-covering.

    2. Thanks Robin, I’d been afraid that my understanding of R100 was right when it came to community projects. What a ridiculous and self-defeating situation, and something that completely ignores every piece of advice (as opposed to monopoly lobbying) they received. But it does fit with the fundamental fear by the Civil Service of activist communities and anything that smacks of self-help. Their only comfort factor is with top-down, corporate-driven projects, however poor the outcome. It’s not even risk aversion, it’s the aversion to risk that they feel could be laid at their door: if they can claim to support community projects where the procurement fails, they can try to point to the process followed and simply dump the blame on the community.

  3. I was hoping that, based on what we’re doing at Balquhidder, we could do more villages under the R100, as a hybrid B4RN/commercial (B4RN for the digging, commercial to light and operate the network with some economy of scale)

    As R100 will be done in a few large chunks it is only going to be the likes of BT that will win it, like with BDUK so far. No room for us.

    BT plans to extend VDSL will help rural reach but have a side effect of totally wiping out any existing LLU investment by competitors as you can’t mix them. So a publicly funded double win for BT, triple if you add in wiping out alt nets too.

    1. That was indeed our hope too, and we and many others made multiple representations to R100 on the topic, all of which have been ignored. The simple fact is that the vast majority of new UK connections at world-class speeds are being made by the alt-nets, whether commercial, community-driven or any combination of the two. To ignore the drive, innovation and determination of these is to effectively stifle an growing tech industry. Nice one, governments.

      After years of dealing with ineffectual public idiocracies, I’ve been seen the visible terror growing in civil servants’ eyes when they’re asked to deal with (let alone fund) projects that rely on innovative and agile approaches. There’s a fundamental cultural and organisational oxymoron here: it is still the case that a career in a public body is progressed by not being seen to rock the boat, and certainly not by taking the perceived risk of encouraging someone other than the existing monopoly, however poor their product and attitude. So BT continues to be given large sums of public money to deliver poor value, obsolete solutions and to continue their attempts to stamp on alt-net projects – the mammals to BT’s dinosaur.

      So the UK’s broadband infrastructure appears doomed to continue down the same path of ineffectual, short-term, box-ticking ‘solutions’ using instantly obsolete technology and restrictive business practices. The only exceptions are those areas where alternative providers have managed to establish a foothold and deliver services worthy of a 21st century society. With projects like R100 defining the future, it’s going to become harder for them to get established.

  4. Hi Richard I recall a telephone conversation with a member of BDUK team where he confirmed that the BDUK 2016 National Broadband Scheme and State Aid would not preclude a community owning and operating a broadband network built by a appropriate contractor following a state aid conformant procurement process.

    I also discussed other aspects of the BDUK 2016 National Broadband Scheme and State Aid including “ownership” of open market review and public consultation process to ascertain and decide on the intervention area. He confirmed that a community could possibly own these and thus decide on the intervention area.

    However his concluding remark that the interpretation and implementation of the BDUK 2016 National Broadband Scheme and State Aid were ultimatey policy decisions of the Scottish Government and CBS (and one assumes their highly paid advisory state aid consultants ?)

    My objective was to try to open up a direct channel to BDUK but was informed that this would have to be done through the SG/CBS !!!!!!

    1. Hi Bob, We had a near identical conversation. When it came to our second procurement through CBS, we therefore set a condition that either we owned the in-glen network OR there was a reversionary clause whereby we automatically took ownership in the event of our contract with the ISP being terminated – if they went out of business or failed to perform to the SLA. CBS simply would not allow that, and required that we specify only that we owned the network. So when they excluded both most plausible bidders, on completely spurious grounds (one has now become the preferred bidder to take over from AB Internet, on EXACTLY the same financial submission), we were left with a bunch who were not going to propose anything useful to us, and BT. But BT’s community fibre partnership requires that we hand over the network once built to them. Which of course CBS wouldn’t allow. So, to be absolutely fair to BT, we pushed and pushed with CBS to allow us to include the reversionary clause again: they wouldn’t budge, despite legal advice and the application of that little thing called logic.

      At that point we were left with no viable bidders to take forward. CBS then gave us the choice of either going ahead with the remaining bidders (including BT, who couldn’t qualify at that point) or rerunning the procurement from scratch, with EXACTLY THE SAME CONDITIONS applied. At which point we took more legal advice, then told them where to… – sorry, formally withdrew on the grounds of their failure to provide a workable procurement environment.

      CBS’ failures of process, leadership and consistency are manifest: to my analysis, they’ve moved beyond the sins of non-feasance and misfeasance and potentially across the line into malfeasance. Which is another thing altogether.

      We tried the direct channel with BDUK too, with the same result as you.

      Your handle of Sisyphus is excellent, BTW, and entirely appropriate to the situation we’re all in.

      1. Re your comments on capabilities of CBS you may find the following amusing !!!!

        When the BDUK State Aid umbrella agreement expired at the end of June 2015 and there was no prospect of a replacement scheme (which eventually was approved in May 2016) CBS and its external consultants planned to use the General Block Exemption (GBER) State Aid scheme (including project I was helping to develop for projects requiring funding above De -Minimus State Aid scheme) which authorises aid in favour of among other things Broadband Infrastructures

        http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Government/State-Aid/if-its-aid/GBER

        Our project went through the CBS Open Market Review (OMR) and State Aid Public consultation with CBS clearly specifying the planned use of GBER in the documentation.

        We were being under a bit of encouragement by CBS to agree to start the procurement process including phone call from Highland and Island Enterprises PR people looking for good news story.

        I was concerened by use and risk of GBER as far as I could work out it had not been used in UK for a broadband project. At a meeting with CBS and its external consultants on the last Friday of Feb 2016 to finalise/agree kick off of procurement process the following week I raised my concerns but was given reassurances of validity of using GBER.

        First thing on the following Monday morning I received a phone call to notify me that CBS were pulling the plug on the use of GBER because of the risk and concerns about its fitness for purpose and thus the start of the procurement. CBS had made the decision to await the new BDUK scheme as yet with no date on its availability. We never did receive written confirmation of this decision from CBS and it is worth mentioning that the aforementioned phone call did not come from a senior member of CBS.

        Cosequence of this among other things

        Sucked life out of project and it came to a standstill awaiting new BDUK Scheme

        Once new BDUK Scheme was announced the Open Market Review and Public Consultation had to be done all over again

        Public funding to cover staff salaries and other additional costs down the drain

        Damaged credibility with communities

        I could go on but he most ironic and amusing aspect of this was that behaviour of Scottish Government, CBS and their highly paid consultants. It was as if the daliance with GBER never happened as it was brushed under the carpet especially when I broached the subject of financial compensation from CBS.

        1. “Amusing” may not quite be the right word there: the experience you describe could have been written by us – with minor contextual differences, that was exactly our experience.

          After the failure of our original procurement due to the sudden withdrawal of the broadband voucher scheme (which we’d gone for as CBS hadn’t told us that we could even apply for funds above de minimis), we were told unequivocally by Farrpoint that GBER would apply. We even checked with the relevant EU Commissioner’s office (Phil Hogan) and all seemed good. Then the British ability to complicate EU regulation with insane non-delivery kicked in again and we were told that GBER no longer applied (which was news to the EU). Farrpoint then told us not to worry – that we could simply split our procurement into several tranches which could each go through under the de minimis. We were in turn dubious about that as we’re not exactly inexperienced in procurement management and that sort of thing is usually a big no-no. Which of course it turned out to be.

          All of that, plus BDUK’s insane inability to actually deliver a working framework (having itself thrown out the previous, workable one), lost us more than a year on the project.

          Then of course we got into our full OJEU procurement. Which is where things went REALLY pear-shaped.

          I’ve been in the tech industry for more than three decades: in academic, consultancy, public sector, enterprise and start-up: I have never, ever come across anything as poorly framed, badly managed and delusionally check-boxed as British broadband delivery: Scotland merely adds an extra layer of insanity to the British model.

  5. The same Farrpoint that have gone on to bigger and better thing advising SG on R100 and opening a London office

    http://www.scotsman.com/business/companies/tech/farrpoint-plugs-into-holyrood-broadband-rollout-plan-1-4378934

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/business_hq/15378413.London_calling_for_Farrpoint_as_IT_firm_expands/

    FARRPOINT, the IT and infrastructure business, has opened a London office following a 28 per cent boost in turnover last year.

    Wander where some of this increase in turnover came from including those projects that never got off the drawing board or ran into the sand like Gigaplus Argyll

    1. As a consultancy, you are, to some extent, constrained by the ability of the client to define and enable your role. It’s also your duty to point out where the client’s behaviour is preventing you from achieving your brief. If that can’t be resolved, the only way to maintain integrity is to withdraw from the project, rather than simply continuing to take the money whilst knowing full well that the project is not going to deliver anything of value.

      Regrettably, too many consultancies – large and small – do just that, to the detriment of the client, the mission and their own reputations.

      Sometimes though, you get trapped into thinking that one more push will tip the client into the zone where things can actually be delivered, so you end up like – ah, Sisyphus – forever pushing against the boulder of non-delivery, however well-meaning your intent. Been there, done that.

  6. Totally agree but believe part of problem with CBS projects was/is who are the consultants clients CBS or the community.

    In early days of CBS communities applied for funding and then following a mini procurement chose their consultants. Thus community were client and thus could define their brief.

    CBS moved on to using a SG framework contract from which HIE chose Farrpoint for CBS projects who were the only bidders in a mini competition. Thus CBS became the client not the community and removed choice and communities ability to set brief.

    Other consultants who had worked on CBS projects were not happy !.

    I was part of evaluation team for aforementioned mini competition of a single bidder and I requested to withdraw as I totally disagreed with this approach/decision as in best interest of communities and best value.

    Cat out of bag on who I used to work for !!!

    1. Good point – we had Farrpoint parachuted onto us, without our having any input whatsoever or even having the opportunity to say (and demonstrate) that we were more than capable of doing the job ourselves. So we spent months trying to justify our carefully researched approach to ‘consultants’ with far less experience than ourselves. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d proven able to help us through the Byzantine complexities of the procurement. That turned out not to be the case.

      Then there was indeed the question of who was the client and whose the procurement: we kept being told that we were the client and that it was our procurement. Then, every single time, CBS would dump conditions and constraints on us that eventually destroyed the whole thing, by creating a set of paradoxes that simply could not logically be resolved – their impositions were mutually exclusive.

      1. Gigaplus Argyll contracts had to be rushed through as BDUK State Aid agreement came to an end in June 2015. The ending of the BDUK scheme seemed to come as a “surprise” to SG, CBS and its consultants although they would argue they were Gigaplus Argyll’s consultants.

        In talking to to Gigaplus PM this rush led to signing a less than desirable contract where they would not get any financial return for several years after completion of network.

        Don’t think any of above led to Ab Internet going belly up but would be interesting to see due diligence carried out by so called experts.

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