The Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Rural Broadband has announced its withdrawal from the local county broadband partnership, with concerns over attendance, confidentiality clauses, pre-set agendas and politics allegedly hampering their ability to propose and devise new ways of match funding with the Government’s £11.38m Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) grant.
The Shropshire County Council (SCC) has been struggling to match-fund with the BDUK grant for some time (here), which if successful would enable the county to expand their on-going Connecting Shropshire project in England by aiming to make superfast broadband (24Mbps+) speeds available to at least 95% of the area by 2017.
The current target is for BT’s “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) network to cover 93% of local premises by the end of Spring 2016 (note: unless otherwise stated, the 93% figure also includes sub-24Mbps speeds), which is fully funded but excludes Telford & Wrekin because that area has its own plan (here); although some of the same funding issues are known to affect both extension projects.
Patrick Cosgrove, Shropshire and Marches Campaign, told ISPreview.co.uk:
“After much thought, the Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Rural Broadband has concluded that there is little useful purpose in continuing with its membership of Connecting Shropshire’s Rural Broadband Group. To begin with there were high hopes that the collective thoughts of the members might help devise ways of identifying the matched funding for the £11.38m BDUK grant, and engage communities and other interest groups in imaginative ways of bringing faster broadband to rural communities.
We have been disappointed. Attendance at the group has been patchy, agendas pre-set, and conditions of confidentiality too inhibiting for our campaign to express its views freely. We fear that publicity from the present broadband project will increasingly be used for political purposes as the local and national elections draw closer, and we wish to dissociate ourselves with that.
We have had, and retain some sympathy for Shropshire Council as we feel it has been bullied and gagged or both, but in the absence of obvious matching money for the BDUK grant, the authority’s reluctance to consider borrowing for one of its stated top two priority projects is disheartening. Our decision has been aided by last week’s discovery that one green cabinet in Clun will be upgraded to Superfast while the other will not. It’s difficult to imagine any elected member or council officer freely choosing to deal with a discrete area of population this way which rather proves the point that BT is in the driving seat at the expense of rural households and businesses for whom the programme of broadband rollout was intended.
The campaign’s initial aims were that rural households and businesses with poor/no broadband would be prioritised, that there would be a universal commitment to far higher than the minimum 2 Mb guarantee, and that cross-boundary issues with other counties and Wales would be clarified. None of these has taken place. Meanwhile millions of pounds have been spent upgrading broadband for people who already had quite reasonable speeds, yet those likely to fall into the 2 Mb guarantee group have no idea when or how this will be delivered. Across the world businesses and government bodies are defaulting to digital by default for their ways of working. This is exacerbating the issue of rural disenfranchisement for Shropshire and the Marches which are in danger of becoming backwaters for economic and social decline.
Our worst fear is that the matching money will not be found and Shropshire Council will not after all have nearly £25m at its disposal for continuing rural broadband.
We will continue to campaign for faster broadband speeds in rural Shropshire and the Marches.”
Shropshire’s funding challenges are by no means unique and we’ve seen a number of similar extension projects choosing to draw down less funding from BDUK due, in no small part, to the difficulty of finding enough match-funding. This occurs at a time when many councils are being asked to make further cuts in order to help balance the country’s budget and reduce the national debt.
At one point Shropshire even considered abandoning the plan to extend their existing project with BT and instead considered an alternative proposal from Broadway Partners, which would leverage private investment to match with the additional BDUK funding and without costing the council directly (details). This would have resulted in a mix of wireless and FTTH broadband, although nothing appears to have come from that idea.
On the subject of the 2Mbps Universal Service Commitment (USC), the current and already funded project aims to make this available to 100% of the area by the same completion date as their 93% target. But the USC goal tends not to be supported by any firm plan and is instead normally linked directly to the superfast deployment. In that sense it’s worth nothing BTOpenreach’s new Street Cabinet based ADSL2+ service, which might soon be helping to provide part of the solution (here).