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Devon Council Refuse Vote on BT vs South Hams Broadband Projects

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014 (8:36 am) - Score 1,027

A question mark has been left hanging over the South Hams Broadband project, which aims to roll-out a 100Mbps+ Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) network across the parishes of Thurlestone, South Milton and South Huish, after Devon County Council refused to give locals a vote between adopting that and BT’s slower FTTC network.

The state aid supported Connecting Devon and Somerset project in England is currently investing £94 million to help make BT’s superfast broadband FTTC/P (25Mbps+) services available to “around” 90% of local homes and businesses by the end of 2016 (here) and some of those areas are expected to overlap the South Hams project.

Br0kenTeleph0n3 has since spotted from a local newspaper (Kingsbridge and Salcombe Gazette) that a meeting took place between locals from the three parishes, BT, the south hams project and Devon council on 22nd January 2014 to discuss the situation. Both sides promoted their respective plans, although both also appeared to have come up a little short on actual details.

For example, BT was unable to clarify concrete information on its coverage plans, speed or timescales (“subject to survey” by BTOpenreach). By comparison the South Hams project doesn’t have a concrete roll-out plan yet either but, subject to council approval, they claim it could be possible to begin the deployment of their “totally” open access network in Q3 2014.

The costs for the South Hams project, which it should be noted have yet to be raised, were similarly a little vague but they do have a rough outline; though it appears to seek RCBF money that still seems to be stalled for everybody else except BT.

South Hams Broadband – Costs Statement

We need to raise the balance of funds from private sources. The final sum will depend on the technical solution but we estimate that the capital cost could be as high as £1m, and the RCBF will only provide around £0.4m of this. We are confident of traditional commercial investment together with social investment being available as soon as Devon Council permit our project to proceed. We are also keen to provide an opportunity to invest for those in the community that wish – but its certainly not mandatory.”

The Managing Director of BT’s Next Generation Access (NGA) division, Bill Murphy, told the meeting that locals “had an important choice to make” and it’s understood that a vote on which project the locals preferred was then proposed. Unfortunately the leader of Devon council, John Hart, rejected the call and thus the decision remains in the councils hands.

The issue of whether or not to de-scope an area from BDUK’s plans, in favour of taking an arguably bigger risk by approving a smaller operator, is not a new one. BT naturally played on the disaster that was South Yorkshire’s Digital Region network (here) to stoke people’s fears, although smaller operators like Gigaclear, B4RN and Hyperoptic have proven that is possible and often without public funding.

State aid rules require that any public investment should not be used to overbuild an existing network, although that hasn’t stopped some controversial decisions affecting parts of B4RN’s better funded network in Dolphinholme (here) and Gigaclear’s plan for rural Wiltshire (here). In the end Devon will probably follow the trend by taking the safer bet and siding with BT.

In related news the chiefs of two Westcountry councils have criticised the Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) that they had to sign with BT in order to secure the related Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contract(s), which is often cited as one of the reasons for why councils can struggle to publish more detail speed and coverage plans (here).

However it’s noted that not all councils agreed to the NDA (e.g. East Devon District Council and South Somerset District Council) and they thus have more flexibility to both publish and openly monitor the deployment.

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