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UPDATE The 46 Unsuccessful UK Rural Community Broadband Fund Bids

Friday, November 14th, 2014 (8:34 am) - Score 1,903
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The Government has responded to a recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request by revealing a breakdown of both successful and unsuccessful bids to their much criticised £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), which originally set out to help rural areas (i.e. in the last 10% of England) gain access to superfast broadband (24Mbps+).

Unfortunately the fund wasn’t as successful as the Government might have hoped, which was partly due to the conflict over BT’s coverage data under the separate Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme; this has an overall aim of making “superfast” connectivity available to 95% of the UK by 2017.

However, in order to avoid duplication of public investment and keep competition fair, EU State Aid rules prevent rival “superfast” (Next Generation Access) networks from overlapping. But this presented a problem for many RCBF bidders because BT and local councils were reluctant to share the full coverage plan.

In fairness, BDUK’s roll-out is fluid and the second funding allocation of £250m also encouraged councils to consider further expansion. This, in combination with the fact that deployment plans can change depending upon the issues faced by BTOpenreach’s engineers on the ground, make it hard to give reliable coverage data until the programme has finished. On top of that not all of the RCBF projects submitted will have had a strong enough foundation.

The result of all this is that so far only five RCBF projects have received funding (this is from a total of around 23 mostly semi-approved applications, including 17 that have since been absorbed into local BDUK projects), which includes the Rothbury (Northumberland) and separate Fell End (Cumbria) projects with BT, Fibre GarDen’s scheme in Cumbria, the Tove Valley project in Northamptonshire and Gigaclear’s Northmoor and Bablockhythe scheme in West Oxfordshire.

An update in August (here) also revealed that a total of 3,269 premises (homes and businesses) were currently anticipated to have the potential to gain access to superfast broadband as part of the RCBF scheme, which could eventually reach over 20,000 once all of the related RCBF projects are completed (note: the original plan aimed for a figure of around 70,000 by mid-2015).

Today some further information has been revealed by the Government following an unspecified FoI, which earlier this year asked the RCBF to release the following information.

FoI Demands

* A list of organisations which were successful in their applications for RCBF funding.
* A list of organisations which made unsuccessful applications.
* A list of projects still live not having been accepted or refused and when they might be accepted or refused.
* The numbers of live initial applications not yet defined as going to full application.

The results can be found on a page setup by DEFRA (here), which notes that a total of 118 expressions of interest for RCBF funding were received and lists the 46 that were unsuccessful. The list of unsuccessful applications includes some interesting entries, not least a surprising one by the Digital Region project in South Yorkshire that closed this year after failing to attract enough customers and collapsing under the weight of over £100m in public debt.

Interestingly B4RN’s project in Lancashire, which we’ve previously been told had been bidding for RCBF funding (details), doesn’t appear anywhere in the document or related lists (status unclear). Indeed the information doesn’t appear to give a truly complete picture and so there might still be hope and we’ve asked B4RN to clarify their status.

In the meantime the Government has moved on from the approach they took with the RCBF by launching a separate £10 million Innovation Fund, which aims to “test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas” (details). It remains to be seen whether the 8 related pilot projects will, as the Government hopes, help to find a way of closing the final 5% coverage gap.

UPDATE 9:48am

According to B4RN’s CEO, Barry Forde, the conflict with the Lancashire County Council over BDUK vs their RCBF coverage meant that the effort of pursuing a bid to completion wasn’t really worth the gain (i.e. the result would have been less than 300 properties out of their 3,500 getting funding). This is largely because LCC appear keen to prioritise their BT based roll-out, even if it means deploying over B4RN’s existing and superior FTTH/P coverage (BT already appears to have attempted to do this in Dolphinholme here and here).

In other words Forde said the status of B4RN’s RCBF bid was now effectively stuck in limbo, since they didn’t withdraw it and LCC haven’t changed their stance. Forde said that LCC remain “totally committed” to their project with BT, although B4RN aren’t worried about this. Indeed B4RN’s strong history of direct community funding and engagement means that locals often feel incentivised to take B4RN’s service over BT, which is how they’ve so far been able to best the national incumbent in Dolphinholme.

We are not in the least worried about the competition as such but not too chuffed at our taxes being used to fund an inferior product when we had to raise 100% of our costs from within the community,” said Barry Forde to ISPreview.co.uk. Forde added that B4RN were also near to the completion of their original footprint and aimed to complete it by Easter 2015. Further coverage is already being planned for the future.

So far B4RN has almost connected 700 premises to its network (subscribers) and they’re adding more at a rate of around 100 per month, which is very impressive considering the size of their network (take-up tends to run at around 50-80% depending on the area).

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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 Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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1 Response
  1. Avatar PhilT

    There is no “limbo”, there are Approved and Unsuccessful applications and non-applications that didn’t happen.

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