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Oxfordshire County Council Rejects Cotswolds Broadband Scheme for BT

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 (8:35 am) - Score 1,192
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The promising Cotswolds Broadband project, which aimed to roll-out an open access and 100Mbps capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network to 90% of homes and businesses (5000 premises) in the Chipping Norton area of west Oxfordshire (England), has joined a similar project in Dorset (Trailways) to be rejected by local councils in favour of BT.

The scheme had been seeking funding through the £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), which has unfortunately been stalled for several months because BT and many local authorities have refused to release vital postcode-based broadband speed and coverage (SCT) data due to it being deemed “commercially sensitive” (here). The information is required in order to ensure that related projects do not overbuild those that are set to be delivered under the Government’s £1.2bn Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme because doing so would breach state-aid rules.

At the same time many smaller ISPs (altnets) and critics of the project have raised concerns over the way that BT are currently the only viable bidder under BDUK’s framework, which has allowed them to gobble up all of the available contracts. Meanwhile smaller ISPs are unable to bid due to a high turnover requirement and bigger providers withdrew over competition and economic concerns, such as the way that BT would not allow their cable ducts (Physical Infrastructure Access) to be used for business as well as residential provision.

The Government’s culture secretary, Maria Miller, had initially appeared keen to see smaller rival projects “co-exist happily alongside the wider rural broadband [BDUK] scheme” but the practical reality is that this has not happened and many councils that signed contracts with BT are now rejecting some once very promising alternatives.

Hugo Pickering, CEO of Cotswolds Broadband, said (BBC):

Oxfordshire County Council has supported this all along but has now decided it is not going to separate it from their contracted plans with BT. We have already put in a whole lot of money and so the council may receive a compensation claim.”

It’s believed that many tens of millions of pounds, which include public as well as private investment, are currently caught up in the on-going RCBF debacle. For example, the Cotswolds Broadband scheme informs ISPreview.co.uk that they alone bid a little under £1.8m (i.e. just under 6,000 premises – around £300 per property) to the RCBF and were working towards raising several million more (here) through various other sources.

Related projects often aim to deploy true fibre optic (FTTP/H) services that would have gone beyond BT’s dominant but slower FTTC solution, although whether or not they could have provided the same familiar selection of mass market ISPs is another matter.

A BT Spokesperson said:

It is up to the local council to decide who they work with on rural broadband. Having said that, a key consideration is that any network which benefits should be open to all ISPs to use. That way, local monopolies are avoided and customers have choice.

BT has spent huge sums developing systems that support such competition and it may be the case that small local operators can’t meet those conditions and are therefore ineligible to receive public funds.”

In fairness BT are a commercial company and thus you can’t blame them for protecting their own interests. Similarly they are one of the few operators with a truly national network and enough financial clout to actually stand a chance of achieving the Government’s 95% target for fixed line superfast broadband coverage by 2017, especially with only £1.2bn of public funds to play with (a drop in the ocean for this kind of work).

On the other hand it can often seem senseless to reject viable alternatives, many of which have put years and years of effort into reaching the current point and might even be able to deliver a more capable service going forward. Ultimately the responsibility for such situations must fall upon the Government and the way that Ofcom chooses to regulate the market, which has created the current situation.

In addition the uncertainty created by the government’s additional allocation of £250 million for use post-2015 has, despite being a useful boost, so far only added to the current RCBF problems and confusion over BT’s FTTC/P coverage in the last 2-10% of rural areas (note: BT’s actual coverage commitments under BDUK varies between the regions).

We expect that many more altnet projects will suffer from similar problems. The schemes that stand the best chance of surviving this are perhaps those that have already got their cable in the ground through private investment, assuming the government doesn’t find an anti-competitive way for BT to overbuild them via public funds.

It’s important to stress that Cotswolds Broadband said it was “still in the game” and hadn’t given up on their project.

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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 Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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