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UPDATE3 B4RN Gasp as BDUK Supported BT FTTP Encroach on Dolphinholme

Wednesday, Jan 15th, 2014 (10:41 am) - Score 2,599
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The largely community funded and built B4RN (Broadband 4 Rural North) project, which has been rolling out a 1000Mbps capable Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH/P) broadband network in parts of rural Lancashire (England, UK), has vented frustration at BT after the operator began deploying its own FTTP service in one of their areas by using public money.

Reports that BT were planning to roll-out their 330Mbps capable FTTP service in the village of Dolphinholme, which B4RN included in the expected coverage postcodes that they sent to Lancashire County Council (LCC) and the RCBF sometime ago, first surfaced last summer after a local community meeting was held and we’ve also mentioned it before (here).

At the time LCC advised the community that there was no need for B4RN’s development in the area because it’s £62.5m state aid fuelled Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project, which aims to hook-up 97% of local premises to superfast broadband (25Mbps+) by the end of 2014 2015 (here), would instead bring BT’s ultra-fast fibre optic FTTP solution to local premises.

The development caused surprise among B4RN and its supporters, not least because the organisation believed that it had an agreement with LCC that the BDUK supported project would not overbuild them; though the specifics and strength of this agreement remain unclear. Indeed state aid rules prevent overbuilding of an existing superfast broadband network (stops money being wasted), although technically B4RN have yet to complete their coverage of the village.

Since then the situation in Dolphinholme has quietly cropped up several times, usually as an example of BT’s alleged anti-competitive behaviour, during various meetings and debates, yet until now very little actual development from BT has been seen.

But recently locals have begun to spot new telegraph cables, street cabinets and chambers being built around the village by BT contractors. Meanwhile B4RN’s activity is already said to be “well under way“, with the village cabinet installed and digging in progress or completed in “much of the area“.

A Spokesperson for Openreach (BT) told ISPreview.co.uk:

BT is currently planning to roll out FTTP to Dolphinholme as part of our partnership with Lancashire County Council to extend fibre to 97 per cent of premises by the end of 2015 using a mix of fibre technologies.

Our fibre roll-out in the area should come as no surprise as our plans have been in the public domain for several months. We have been fully transparent whilst the council also provided BR4N with a map of our deployment plans for the area in October 2012.

BT and Lancashire Council included the village in the plans for jointly funded fibre access following an Open Market Review process conducted by the council. All interested parties had the opportunity to participate by submitting their commercial deployment plans and the review concluded that Dophinholme was not due to be covered by commercially funded fibre broadband. BT’s roll out in the area complies with state aid rules.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that BT have been viewed as muscling in on an area where another operator is busy building or planning to build some form of alternative network (just ask Gigaclear and various other altnets or community schemes), often after previously showing little or no interest in doing so. But in the past this has usually been done via their own commercial investment and not public money.

It’s also interesting to note that BT are using similar FTTP/H technology to B4RN in Dolphinholme, instead of the more common and cost effective but slower FTTC service, which is a difficult fact to shake off as mere coincidence.

We have asked B4RN whether they also specifically submitted any plans for Dolphinholme under the Open Market Review process, which is important for helping to define which locations should be included in the BDUK intervention area, although it’s no secret that the village has been on B4RN’s roadmap for a while and LCC do appear to have been generally aware of this.

ISPreview.co.uk further understands that BDUK itself is now investigating the issue, although so far they’ve historically tended to support BT’s approach. We will post an official comment from B4RN as soon as it arrives. On the upside it looks like the people of Dolphinholme will soon have two choices for true fibre optic broadband access, which in the UK remains very rare.

UPDATE 4:18pm

Now we have B4RN’s full reaction.

A B4RN Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

B4RN’s plans to build an FTTH network in Dolphinholme long preceded any published plans by BT to roll-out a competing FTTP network in the same area. Only once a substantial amount of work had been completed by B4RN did BT become active in the area. Given that the whole area is in the last 10% which BT publicly declared could not get fast broadband without substantial state subsidy we assumed that it could only go ahead as part of the Lancashire SFBB project.

It is surprising to see the statement from BT confirming that the Dolphinholme deployment is “part of our partnership with Lancashire County Council” as this brings the subject of overbuild into play.

However, whilst this is very interesting, it does not detract from B4RN’s activity in Dolphinholme. The B4RN deployment is well advanced in the village and the community are extremely engaged and supportive of the project. Deployment will continue as planned and the village will be live in due course. B4RN also recognises that the village is somewhat unique in the fact that it has a choice of two FTTP providers which has to be a good thing for the lucky residents.”

Separately B4RN were keen to stress that Dolphinholme had been part of their plans ever since 2011, which does indeed long precede BT’s involvement, and that the data reflecting this was given to LCC as part of their Open Market Review. We expect that this will not be the last story ISPr writes about the village.

UPDATE 23rd January 2014

It took a little bit of time but Lancashire County Council has now got back to us. The council confirms that, as part of securing funding for their BDUK backed project, they undertook two Open Market Review (OMR) exercises to establish State Aid compliance.

One was conducted in 2011/2012 at the request of the European Commission and a further OMR was conducted in 2012/2013 at the request of the central Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office. But they claim B4RN had not submitted anything to either.

A Spokesperson for LCC told ISPreview.co.uk:

B4RN did not respond to either of the OMRs and all other operators who responded detailed Dolphinholme as out of scope for commercial investment plans. Based on this market-led intelligence, the OMR determined Dolphinholme to be classified as ‘White’ under State Aid rules and therefore eligible for public sector intervention. Having conducted two OMRs, the county council is confident it has demonstrated a clear commitment to complying with State Aid legislation.”

As reported earlier, B4RN claim that Dolphinholme has been a part of their plan since 2011 and that this information was given to LCC, including as part of the Open Market Review (at this stage it doesn’t really matter which OMR since LCC claim they didn’t respond to either). We have asked B4RN to comment.

UPDATE 23rd Jan 2014 – 4:24pm

B4RN have reiterated their earlier position to ISPreview.co.uk and they still appear content to let sleeping dogs lie by not pursuing the issue too aggressively. One of the reasons for that is because they already claim to have most of the community fully engaged. In other words the locals whom are helping to build B4RN’s network appear to show little interest in BT’s own FTTP solution.

Could it end up being a costly mistake for BT, BDUK and LCC to deploy FTTP into an area where the demand has already gone B4RN’s way, due to a powerful investment of local peoples time and energy? We’ll come back to find out later this year.

On the fringes of this debate it’s worth noting that LCC don’t yet appear to have put any actual funding in to help cover Dolphinholme specifically. B4RN often suggests that BT’s project there is being seen more as part of their £2.5bn commercial roll-out rather than being BDUK/LCC funded, although clearly BT’s statement suggests an opposing perspective.

Incidentally some letters and communications seen by ISPreview.co.uk would appear to support B4RN’s general position on this matter.

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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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