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.