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Somerset Villagers Unhappy with Government Satellite Broadband Pilot

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 (3:32 am) - Score 2,514

A group of residents in the Somerset village of Priddy have expressed displeasure at the Government’s attempt to fix the community’s broadband “slow spots” by spending public money on a new Satellite Internet service, which locals complain is too limited, expensive to run and is not up to the task of catering for business demands.

The Government recently confirmed that seven pilot schemes under their £10m Innovation Fund, which was setup last year to “test innovative solutions” for delivering superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services to the final 5% of the United Kingdom (i.e. the most difficult to reach rural areas), would be proceeding to deployment (here).

The Priddy Pilot

One of the pilots – Superfast Satellite For Communities (SS4C) – includes a project for parts of Devon and Somerset that will push £175,125 of tax payers money towards harnessing KA-band satellite connectivity as a backhaul solution for local wireless networks and directly to customer premise equipment; this is run by the imaginatively titled ISP Satellite Internet and uses the SES (Astra) platform.
superfast satellite for communities
One of the locations selected as part of the above pilot is a village called Priddy on the Mendip Heights, where some 671 locals (population) currently receive fixed line broadband speeds of anything from as low as 1Mbps to as high as 4-5Mbps (download). The village is also served by two different exchanges, one of which is based in nearby Wells.

Community Concerns

Apparently the base case assumptions applied to Priddy as part of this pilot suggest a payback period of just 1 year, requiring some £129.14 of private investment and £938.71 of public subsidy per customer connected. But some locals have contacted ISPreview.co.uk to say that they’re not happy and have setup a new website to express their concerns (Priddy Broadband), which is also being contributed to by Barry Wilkinson, a local Councillor on the Priddy Parish Council.

Chris George, Priddy Resident, told ISPreview.co.uk:

Let me make it clear that I don’t have a ‘religious’ argument against satellite broadband per-se. In fact, from a technology perspective it is rather remarkable and it is the only technology that can reach the really difficult places in the UK. Satellite does have a role to play. However, I feel that satellite is being seen as the solution for the last 5% and I don’t agree with that at all. It should only be the solution for the very last properties, probably far less than 1%.

What I am talking about here is remote farms half way up a Welsh valley or single properties in the Scottish Highlands. If this pilot covered such properties then I would be more supportive of it. However the pilot is centred on Priddy which really does not qualify as remote in quite the same way. There is a reasonable concentration of houses, many clustered in the village a few miles away from Wells. In fact, there is already a fibre duct running into Priddy that serves Priddy School.

Steeping back a bit, a large part of the problem is the very loose definition of Superfast broadband by the Government. The superfast broadband definition BDUK is aiming for is 24Mbps+ download bandwidth. BDUK have also defined what it considers to be affordable. However, the download bandwidth of the internet connection is just one metric. There are other equally, if not more important metrics that are largely ignored. These include latency, data quotas and contention / congestion and upload bandwidth.”

George further complains that the pilot decisions are being made without full consultation with their community and some locals also see the use of public funding on such a service as an “unnecessary waste“, not least because they can already buy a service from the ISP privately. Indeed prices start at £9.95 for a 4Mbps service with a 3GB usage allowance, which shoot up to £59.95 if you want 20Mbps alongside a 50GB allowance or a hefty £69.95 for “unlimited” use (plus a one-off hardware and installation fee of around £427.95).

It’s worth pointing out that the pilot service adopts a slightly different form in order to meet the Government’s definition of “superfast“, thus the download speeds offered are 25Mbps and the usage caps provide for only three options of 5GB, 20GB and 50GB (as above, 50GB isn’t cheap). Customers who use more than the cap will be throttled to a speed of just 0.25Mbps. According to Ofcom, the average fixed line broadband household now uses 58GB a month, so this isn’t ideal for current needs.

George does however admit that the quality of experience for basic Internet usage (e.g. static web pages and email), including video streaming, over Satellite is “actually rather good“. But he complains that it becomes “poor” for more advanced applications, including dynamic web pages, secure web pages, remote desktops, VPNs and on-line gaming. “With the exception of gaming, those other applications are critical to many businesses and home workers,” said George.

Chris George concluded:

In summary I am totally unimpressed by the proposals and perhaps more importantly the precedent that they set … I am aware the BDUK and Connecting Devon and Somerset have been tasked with aggressive targets. The Government is under pressure to state that it has made good on its promises.

I am finding it very difficult to see this scheme as anything other than a desperate attempt to meet the letter of what has been promised, sadly it will not meet the spirit of the words. The Government is once again on the cusp of letting down rural communities.”

ISPreview.co.uk have of course raised our own concerns about the use of Satellite technology as a quick fix for bigger rural areas, which can be problematic given the high cost of data / capacity constraints, high latency times and other restrictions of the platform.

On the other hand Satellite does work well as a stop-gap solution for the most remote of individual premises, but in an ideal world it should perhaps only be deployed across villages on the understanding that something better will follow (i.e. not as a permanent fix). Providing a subsidy to cover the hefty setup cost may help, but it can’t resolve the platforms inherent problems.

The Government’s Response

Naturally we raised the community’s concerns with the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK office, which in its reply noted that a final decision to site the pilot project at Priddy had not yet been made. The Government also said that the lack of a formal consultation does not mean that local voices will not be heard.

In clarifying, BDUK informed us that their stakeholder engagement approach will require meetings with district and parish councillors (i.e. to explain the offer and facilitate community engagement), followed by meetings with residents and then finally, if there’s enough support for the pilot, a demonstration of the service would be setup alongside a session for gathering formal expressions of interest. At present BDUK only claims to have completed the first step of meeting with councillors and they plan to meet locals shortly.

BDUK further noted that residents in the village of Luxborough (Exmoor), where this trial is also being run and where stakeholder engagement is more advanced, apparently responded positively at a village meeting and are now signing-up for the trial.

A DCMS Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

The BDUK funded pilot will trial superfast satellite which is not widely commercially available in the UK and will offer residents the opportunity to receive superfast speeds for the first time. Current government plans will see 95% of the UK getting access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017, but we expect a range of technologies will be needed to reach the “final 5%”. These trials are helping us compare the costs and benefits of different approaches whilst bringing superfast broadband to areas outside of current roll-out plans.”

In other words, it looks like village locals will soon get a chance to have their say and voice any objections. One possible problem with this approach is the lack of alternatives, which may encourage a community to sign-up for fear that otherwise there won’t be another option.

However it’s worth remembering that the whole purpose of the Government’s pilot programme is to test what works and what doesn’t. At present no decisions have been made about future UK funding allocations or technology choice to cater for the final 5% and indeed the current expectation is that this may not happen until later into 2015 or early 2016, which makes it a problem for the next Government to solve.

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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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