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RCBF Fails Target to Give 70000 Rural Premises Superfast Broadband

Saturday, Jul 5th, 2014 (7:50 am) - Score 1,011

The government’s controversial £20 million Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), which originally aimed to help remote rural areas in the last 5-10% of England gain access to superfast broadband, will fall well short of its original target to help up to 70,000 premises and is instead only set to pass between 20-25,000 premises.

The fund has faced considerable difficulties ever since it first opened up for bids in 2012 because of a conflict with the national and BT dominated Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme, which currently aims to make superfast Internet connectivity available to 95% of the population by 2017.

State Aid rules prevent RCBF funding from being used to overlap an existing NGA broadband network, such as the one that BT is building through the BDUK process, but in order to avoid this altnets (smaller ISPs) need to know where BT’s network will go. Sadly many alternative ISP schemes have struggled to get access to this vital coverage and speed data due to objections and buck-passing between both BT and local councils, which is despite BDUK pushing for the release (here).

In fairness BDUK’s roll-out is fluid and the recent addition of another £250m has once again encouraged councils to consider further coverage expansion. This, in combination with the fact that deployment plans can change depending upon the issues faced by engineers on the ground (e.g. Cornwall’s original target of 80% coverage ended up being lifted to 95%), make it hard to give reliable coverage data until after the programme has finished.

Never the less a new update from the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which was recently uncovered by ISPreview.co.uk while scouring through Government documents for new information, claims to examine the impact of RCBF investment on premises with the potential to receive superfast broadband.

It reveals that, based on contracted projects a total of 2,118 domestic, business and other premises (between 2013/14 and 2014/15) in hard-to-reach rural areas are anticipated to have the potential to receive superfast broadband as a result of RCBF investment in England. These premises are all within the first 3 community projects to be approved for funding from the RCBF (here, here and here).

The update states that more projects are “expected to be contracted in due course” and readers will note that a growing number of previously proposed RCBF schemes and funding have now found themselves being merged with the BDUK and BT scheme at Local Authority level (17 schemes in all). It also confirms that the RCBF had an original target of up to 70,000 premises to have the potential to receive superfast broadband by mid-2015, but this will now be missed because it’s proven more expensive to connect people than first envisaged.

DEFRA’s RCBF Statement – Future Target Expectations

At the time the RCBF was launched in November 2011, it was envisaged that the maximum amount of grant the RCBF would normally provide per premise would be based on a benchmark of up to £300 (excluding VAT). This meant that if the RCBF of £20 million was fully utilised then 66,666 premises would be given the potential to receive superfast broadband by mid-2015. It was recognised at the time that the final target figure could be lower depending on the average costs per premise and grant rate approved.

In the event, the costs per premises passed in the final hard to reach areas have proved to be significantly higher than originally anticipated, and this has been a factor in reducing the numbers of premises capable of being passed under the Fund. Applications submitted to the Fund are expected to result in approximately 20-22 projects, passing between around 20-25,000 premises, for areas not in scope of the broadband projects under the main Government rollout programme.

Seventeen of these projects are led by Local Authorities and are due to be delivered as extensions to existing Local Authority contracts under the main rollout programme. As such these 17 projects will be reported by DCMS as part of the DCMS Broadband Performance Indicator on superfast broadband, rather than through this RCBF indicator.”

The Fund itself has been closed to new bids since last year and the current Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) will also be coming to an end on 31st March 2015. Suffice to say that the outcome will probably not come as a huge surprise to anybody and the Government’s recent move to launch the £10 million Innovation Fund (here) seems to be another stab at the same area, albeit on terms that are arguably more open and favourable to non-BT projects.

The Government said this week that they plan to use the £10m fund to establish how much investment will be needed to lift the national superfast broadband target from 95% to 100% (here).

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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