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.
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.