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Cumbria UK Reject Superfast Broadband Rollout Bids from BT and Fujitsu

Friday, Jun 15th, 2012 (8:13 am) - Score 1,139

A plan to deploy superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services to 90% of people in Cumbria (England) by 2015 (the last 10% would get speeds of at least 2Mbps), which could be worth up to £40 million, looks set to face further delays after the Cumbria County Council (CCC) rejected the only two available bids from BT and Fujitsu.

Cumbria, which is one of England’s most rural counties, was picked to be one of the country’s first five Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband pilot projects in October 2010 (here). Since then the governments Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office has awarded £17,130,000 to help the county proceed with their Local Broadband Plan (LBP), which has already been approved and is now in the procurement phase (tender / contract seeking). The extra cash would come from match-funding via private sector investment and council contributions.

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As a result Cumbria was widely expected to be one of the first out of the gate, yet so far neither BT nor Fujitsu have been able to meet the council’s requirements (these remain roughly in-line with the government’s national goal, as stated in the first paragraph). In short, both bidders have been told to go back and revise their offers.

Statement from Cumbria Council (North-West Evening Mail)

Today, Cumbria County Council’s Cabinet have decided to enter into a new phase of procurement on Connecting Cumbria. This new phase will see formal negotiations continue with the final two bidders on the Connecting Cumbria Programme to help improve their overall offer for Cumbria. Cabinet now intends to make a final decision in September.

Cabinet received detailed submissions from the final two potential suppliers (Fujitsu and BT) and despite a lot of progress being made neither of the final tenders had completely fulfilled the original, and full, requirements of the procurement process. Both suppliers will now be invited to take part in new negotiations, which will lead to revised final tenders being submitted later this year.

The council will invite both suppliers to engage in an intense process of formal negotiation that will focus on securing a final contract for the delivery of Superfast broadband in Cumbria that fully meets the needs and aspirations of the Connecting Cumbria programme and satisfies the terms and conditions of all funding bodies including central government and EU requirements.

The council member in charge of the Connecting Cumbria project, Elizabeth Mallinson, added that their inability to choose a supplier had apparently not prevented them from making “significant progress in terms of our overall broadband strategy for Cumbria“; significantly slow progress perhaps.

Meanwhile the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA / CBN), which aims to promote and support the development of next generation local (rural) internet access projects, suggests that the move could be good news for Cumbria’s future.

INCA Statement

INCA members are very supportive of the Government’s ambitions for next generation broadband but have long been concerned about the process. Cumbria’s decision to reject both BT and Fujitsu Telecom’s bids is a symptom of serious underlying problems with the government’s procurement process. There are currently only two participants remaining; other potential bidders concluded relatively early on that the process is too heavily weighted in favour of the incumbent to make it contestable. What the UK needs is a more competitive process to encourage investment and innovation. Alternatively we need to find a different way of funding next generation infrastructure and that almost certainly leads down the route of full structural separation of BT.

After the Olympics we need a rethink of the policy. Ideally the review should focus on the size and shape of the franchise areas; how to encourage investment in truly open access backhaul connections between communities and the Internet; building networks based on open Internet exchange peering points, not just BT’s telephone exchanges; encouraging investment from industry, non-traditional private sector players and communities themselves to increase the size of the overall pot.

Unfortunately INCA’s statement is perhaps a bit wide of the mark, at least in terms of Cumbria itself, because the council have merely asked Fujitsu and BT to return with improved offers. But many people would certainly agree that the Broadband Deliver UK (BDUK) process has flaws and would perhaps benefit from being more open to smaller operators.

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The next question concerns whether or not both operators will actually return to the table. Cumbria is naturally a highly rural and thus very challenging environment to work in, although BT has already said that they will “continue to work with the authority” to secure the “highly contested” tender. By contrast Cumbria could be the final nail in the coffin for Fujitsu’s long held, yet often criticised, plans for a rural fibre optic (FTTH) broadband network.

Fujitsu, having once envisaged an Open Access Wholesale Network that could reach 5 million UK premises in rural areas by 2016, has since seen its interest diminish to bidding for Suffolk, Cumbria, North Yorkshire and possibly a few others. The firm’s untested plan relies upon a huge amount of public money and affordable access to BT’s national cable ducts, which is a tough ask. So far Fujitsu has not been able to make this work anywhere outside of an isolated trial.

Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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