You Really Can’t…

…Make this stuff up: if what we’re going through had been presented as a plot idea for Yes, Minister, it would have been rejected out of hand as just too implausible.

The story so far: having gone through the funding process approved by Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), we thought we were ready to starting digging and building. That was last November.

We knew what we were doing, how we were going to do it and how much it was going to cost to build and run. In fact, we’ve got a more detailed business plan than I’ve done for multi-million pound private investments. We also have a service planned that is extensible – able to leapfrog across the Highlands to help out other communities with the same issues as ourselves. You’d think that might count for something, but…

At that point we were told by CBS that we couldn’t go ahead because… …well, because. EU bureaucracy was blamed: it took us less than a week of contact with the European Commission to debunk that – it turned out that Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), through which CBS had to go, via Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) had failed to maintain its status with the EU General Block Exemption Rules (GBER) and were scrambling around frantically to put something else in place. And if you understood that, you’re doing better than the rest of us.

So we had to go through a State Aid Public Consultation (SAPC), whereby commercial operators get the chance to say (in our case, yet again) whether they have any plans to service the area. BT, in other words. Now we’ve tried to engage with BT right from the very beginning and, at every turn, they’ve refused to engage with us and declined to bid in our procurement, despite our strenuous efforts to persuade them to do so. All of which is fully documented, as are attempts by their representatives to undermine our project.

The SAPC that applied to us covered about seven areas across Scotland, with a submission deadline of 5 August. Late in the day BT applied for an extension to that deadline to 19 August. And were given it (our apologies here, as we must have fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘deadline’). The SAPC was issued by CBS (part of HIE). 19 August came and went, with no sign of any response. After several days’ of chasing, we were informed that BT had sent their submission back to the Scottish Government, not to CBS/HIE and were citing commercial confidentiality as a reason for not sharing the information with CBS. Who of course were the body who issued the consultation.

So we (and, apparently, CBS) spent some days trying to claw BT’s response out of the whoever to whom it had actually been submitted.  It took two weeks for the result to surface (unofficially, it took someone helpful 15 minutes to process the data).

It finally turns out that we’re still outwith any consideration by BT for their deployment of its antique technology. This is a good thing, which means we can go ahead. But we’re still being hit by the idiocracy of BDUK, which is now insisting that we have to do a complete new procurement under the rules that happen to apply this week. That’s going to take (optimistically) until the end of the year, despite the unequivocal assurances we’d had from CBS’s retained consultants that we’d be able to start building in the Autumn, that being, ah, now. Our latest last minute discovery is that, apparently, the Technology Neutral tender process we very carefully followed last year is not acceptable to Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the bunch, if you recall, who’d apparently screwed up the EU process in the first place.

David and I spent a couple of days in early September at the UK Network Operators’ Forum (UKNOF) conference, where we found other community that weren’t prepared to accept the lowest common denominator of service are suffering from exactly the same problems as us – it does appear that the more you know and the more you’re prepared to do for yourselves, the more you’re regarded as trouble makers

We’ve now therefore lost another year, not to weather or technical issues but to a sheer mindless bureaucracy that appears aimed only at turning the handle on a fundamentally broken process, with zero consideration for delivery of the end result.

And here’s the fundamental problem: civil servants and consultants have no ‘skin in the game’ – they’re paid their salaries and consultancy fees no matter what the outcome, whereas the communities to whom the outcome is utterly critical incur real and mounting costs and losses with every delay that’s thrown at them. When this is pointed out to the apparatchiks in question, they simply change the subject, not even deigning to acknowledge the issue.

This may not be Yes, Minister – it significantly lacks humour – but, to judge from my current very fine impression of Malcolm Tucker, it’s much closer to The Thick of It.

2 thoughts on “You Really Can’t…”

  1. spot on. That is what happens to any community who seek support from the government. By far the best way is to pay for it yourselves. Then the return on investment is also yours to keep, and you don’t have to waste time playing their silly games. The government is full of great folk, who would really like to help you, but their hands are tied by the eejits who made the silly rules. And the consultants who advised them when they made the rules, and you don’t have to guess where they were recruited from.

    1. Chris, the unfortunate thing is that the state aid funding process, designed as it was to prevent states from stifling commercial enterprise, is actually here being used to actually prevent anyone from competing with BT: we’re slightly too small an area to create a compelling investment model. So the obvious thing would be to provide a service to a progressively wider area, much as you’ve done. Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by exchange areas that have been FTTC enabled with public money, meaning that the commercial risk for a new market entrant is just too high, especially given BT’s record of moving to stifle competition by suddenly enabling exchanges in places where competition might arise.

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