Project Update: June 2016

Things may have been a little quiet publicly on the broadband front, but that simply means that, like the swans on the loch, we’ve been paddling furiously beneath the surface, trying to make headway against rising currents. Those currents have been in the form of some hair-rending bureaucracy that’s been belatedly thrown at us by government bodies and which are currently causing us months of delay. So let’s first rewind to this time last year, when we entered into the procurement process required by Community Broadband Scotland for public funding. We followed their process and went out to market to solicit bids for a future-proof broadband service that could be provided at a market-competitive rate. What we got back were a few bids that were mostly poorly prepared, didn’t meet local needs and which offered equipment that would need replacing every few years. Uncool. 

But we did end up with a solution that would lend itself to a community-run service dig, would provide us with highly competitive and future-proof broadband speeds and a service which was financially viable once up and running without public subsidy. That did come in at a build cost higher than the EU procurement threshold – more of that anon. But we could fill the gap with funding from the Broadband Voucher Scheme for businesses by making an aggregated application for the businesses in the glen. That scheme was supposed to run until the end of March 2016. We were working to have our application ready by the end of October 2015. Great. Until the entire scheme was pulled, without notice, on 12 October. Back to square one.

After a deal of wandering around with the begging bowl, we found a replacement funder for the defunct voucher scheme, in the shape of Stirling Council’s new five-year broadband fund, set up to help communities in its area who had been left out in the cold by BT’s rollout of ancient technology. At this point we went back to Community Broadband Scotland, with a cheerful, “Hey guys, we’ve got some possible additional funding, so let’s get started!”. only to be told that we now needed to go through a brand new procurement process, this time under the full EU procurement rules. Had we been told this at the beginning, we could have built this in to our original procurement (which was agreed by CBS, remember?) rather than having to start a process from scratch that would lose us this summer’s building season – the existence of a little thing called Winter around here didn’t seem to register. So, as you do, we phoned the EU Commissioner responsible, to ask just what was going on. He handed that to his team, who got back to us in a week with a very clear statement of what exemptions there were from the EU rules. We appeared to qualify for all three items on that list. Which is when we found out that the UK government had screwed up the process it had built around the EU regulations and wouldn’t take us forward on the route the EU told us we could take. The Scottish Government project (DSSB) was a clone of the UK project (BDUK) and the CBS programme was tied to DSSB and thence to BDUK, so we were stuck. This will be entirely familiar to anyone who has ever watched Yes, Minister – only in this case, we really, really couldn’t make it up.

So we’re at the stage of spending considerable time shouting into the black hole of bureaucracy and hoping for an echo, however faint and distant. We’ve been assured that we’ll still be able to go ahead this year, but we’re not holding our collective breath. In the meantime we’ve been designing the network in detail, refining the costs and getting a schedule together for the work, based on a deal of community effort with the dig. We’ve also been looking to other grants and sponsorship that would let us actually cover some of the time that’s being put into the project: all these delays have eaten heavily into volunteer availability.

In parallel with all this, we’ve been active in the media and at conferences: David Johnston gave a very well received talk at the April conference of the UK Network Operators’ Forum (UKNOF), despite BT’s Neil McRae making spurious ‘spoiler’ claims which have subsequently not been substantiated; we attended an open day at the inspirational B4RN community broadband project in Lancashire; Richard Harris gave a second interview to Radio 4’s PM programme on progress and the article he subsequently published here has been very widely circulated. We also have a journalist from the Daily Telegraph turning up in mid-June to spend a couple of days finding out what life is like in the barely connected sticks and we’re sure that there will be more to come.

We do have funding commitments and once we get through the current bureaucratic madness we firmly believe that we can deliver the effective and future proof fibre service for which we’ve all been working so hard.

7 thoughts on “Project Update: June 2016”

  1. I can fully understand your anguish after working so hard. Your situation is nearly as bad as our was in Ewhurst Surrey in 2011 , under “The Big Society” where we had actually been awarded a grant of £180,000 for our scheme only to have it snatched away by BT assisted by Parish Councillors and others unknown all the way up to BDUK after BT failed to submit a compliant bid.

    http://www.ewhurst-broadband.org.uk/?p=1893

    Given the urgency and the lack of progress so far, I wonder if you might find a loan to start the construction this summer as you only need purchase the fibre duct at this stage costing around 35 pence per metre ?

    ( I have some recollection of your wonderful scenery as I worked in the late 1980s in the rather dismal old Falkirk slaughterhouse but on hydro-turbine controllers amongst other things. I have shivered in the Loch Sloy turbine hall too ! I particularly remember Ben Ledi, Loch Katrine and one memorable haar day above Tillicoultry where I discovered a brilliant blue sky in warm sunshine and fabulous views ! )

    1. Thanks Walter: I just read your blog (my old stamping grounds are around Holmbury St Mary, Godalming & Hindhead) and what happened to you is exactly what we fear. BT has already tried to run a couple of spoilers on us and I regard their abuse of market position and lobbying as actual corruption.

      1. Great minds think alike on that point ! What a small island we live in !

        After the Ewhurst debacle I became B4RN’s first and now millionth shareholder. I know you have said you have a sparse area with a limited number of properties but I expect you’ll find more neighbours are interested too. B4RN started at 8 parishes in 2011 and has now grown to 43 with close on 2,000 properties connected. They are now attracting new businesses to their areas so helping the local economy. As the incumbent’s products are monopolistically and asymmetrically limited with serious distance degradation without an upgrade path, it’s quite probable that you could start over-building the adjacent substandard areas too.

        E.g. I observe that Auchenlaich Farmhouse, Callander, Perthshire FK17 8LQ only achieves a download of 10.32 Mbps on a VDSL 40 / 10 service from Callander’s cabinet 4 with a miserable maximum estimate of 12.4 Mbps because it has a road distance of 1.93 km (but probably less in practice).

        Incidentally cabinet 4 has a waiting list because it was not correctly sized in the first place. It beggars belief that the incumbent was allowed to install such inadequate cabinets. We’ve had the same problems here in Surrey too. This article was updated up to September 2015 and cabinet 5 in Shere returned to service after a delay of over 12 months.

        http://www.guildford-dragon.com/2015/03/23/campaigner-says-superfast-broadband-upgrade-in-rural-areas-is-causing-unnecessary-mayhem/

        1. Walter, I was on Stirling Council’s Broadband Advisory Group and every single community member of that group was telling them (and DSSB) that the cabinets were grossly underspecified, even for those properties in range. As ever, we were ignored by the ‘Abominable No-Man’ representing DSSB, probably because they’ve been so stitched up by BT that they have no influence over the process. Even under government contract, BT uses its commercial model to determine where to go (which is insane/cynical) and works on a 20% uptake of faster broadband. Of course, we all know that in rural areas, the uptake is usually 60-70% (as we have). Of course there’s a self-fulfilling argument here: some of the FTTC cabinets do indeed have low take-up, but they a) include out-of-capacity as low take up and b) if you look at the cabinets where there is a low take-up, it’s because most properties are out of range of any FTTC benefit. The biggest threat to our programme is BT’s continue threat to ‘enable’ our area with a cabinet, thus ticking a box without providing a service. We were supposed to be descoped from DSSB last year, after our CBS-approved procurement but, for reasons I’m still trying to find out, that hasn’t happened.

  2. More like the Thick of IT than Yes Minister, unless you have been through it you don’t know how bad it is. We got offered funding eventually, but we couldn’t make use of it because of all the stupid rules and regulations, we’d never have got a network built. I can feel your pain, but it’s far easier in the long run to self fund. At the end of it you own your own network, and the profits come back to the community. If only the politicians could see through the hype and support us instead of hindering. Keep the faith, if we can do it, you can too. JFDI.

    1. Chris, thanks for the continuing support. We either have to keep working our way through the process or go fully commercial, addressing a much wider area to get the economy of scale needed. And I think it’s probably me who’s doing the best Malcolm Tucker impressions over this. But, as always, it’s the communities who end up subsidising the combination of political incomprehension and civil service failings of intent and process. Which is the polite way of putting it.

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