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Cumbria’s Fibre GarDen Broadband Project in New Contractor Dispute

Monday, November 23rd, 2015 (11:46 am) - Score 1,216

The row over Fibre GarDen’s (Digital Dales) failure to roll-out an ultrafast FTTP broadband network to the rural Cumbria (England) villages of Garsdale and Dentdale has deepened today after the project said that ITS Technology Group was likely to be of “breach of contract” over their gap funding deal.

Back in September 2015 we ran an extensive article on some of the challenges that the once promising Fibre GarDen project was facing, not least with regards to the problem of unpaid sub-contractors that had been hired by ITS Tech, the main contractor (here). Shortly after that a lack of funding and other concerns stalled the project pending a review (here).

The story then took another twist last week after we revealed that ITS Tech had offered to buy Fibre GarDen and presumably continue the roll-out, although this was reportedly rejected as ITS said that there still existed a “strong desire to keep this as a community initiative” (here).

Roy Shelton, ITS’ Group CEO, told ISPreview.co.uk:

The project came to a halt due to a lack of funds which was the result of a catalogue of issues – not least the delays in the de-scope process and Network Rail’s decision to back track on the backhaul provision.”

Today the project’s Chairman, Andrew Fleck, has revealed that they’ve so far spent £136,000 with their main contractors, ITS Tech, on project design, management and initiation. Apparently ITS Tech has also admitted to “difficulties and inconsistencies in our project management of the early stages of delivery,” which probably weren’t helped by the roll-out starting prematurely (i.e. before funding had been secured).

Fleck also told last week’s AGM meeting that ITS had signed an open-ended contract to gap-fund any financial shortfalls in the project, which has proven difficult for the contractor after a recent on-the-ground survey indicated that ITS would face a higher build cost than originally forecast. On top of that the window for securing public funds from DEFRA has now closed (details). Fibre GarDen states that ITS Tech has since chosen to withdraw its gap funding offer.

At this point the whole effort is in danger of turning into a rather tedious soap opera; at least it would be if it wasn’t for that big pile of very real money that seems to have evaporated without much progress being shown.

Andrew Fleck now claims to have received legal advice, which allegedly suggests that ITS Tech could be in “breach of contract and [may face] consequential damages including payments made for work not delivered, escalating costs due to delay and loss of DEFRA funding“.

Statement from the Fibre Garden Board:

It is hard to see how ITS can claim there was a lack of funding when DEFRA were contacting us on a weekly basis in July and August to seek progress updates so that they could transfer grant funds to the project. And ITS know that backhaul arrangements did not delay the project because they signed a three year contract to supply service to Fibre GarDen in February 2015, well before construction was due to start.”

The situation is now such that Fibre GarDen’s members have returned a vote of no confidence in ITS’ ability to honour its funding contract or in its project management abilities, which is why they chose not to consider the group’s buy-out offer. As such the original contract is now in dispute and the project is looking to “pursue all routes to recoup losses incurred.”

Andrew Fleck, Speaking after the Meeting, said:

The meetings demonstrated how deeply disappointed the community is by this turn of events and how determined it is to receive high quality broadband services. We were delighted to receive so much support, the Board remains committed to the task set by our members and neighbours. The Board will consider all the options and bring forward new proposals to Members in due course.”

At the end of the day many community broadband project’s often lack the necessary skill in order to carry out such complex work, which is why commercial contractors or other experts are often drafted in to help fill the technical and knowledge gaps. Clearly FibreGarden put a lot of their faith in ITS Tech to deliver upon that side and this hasn’t happened.

Equally the construction industry is no stranger to cost overruns, not least because rolling out complex networks in rural areas can become subject to all sorts of challenges. This is why it’s important to get detailed surveys completed and costed before work begins, but even then you can often still encounter unforeseen problems along the way that add to your costs.

Local authorities are often criticised for choosing BT to supply faster broadband services, but equally councils have to be mindful of the risks, both economic and political, which can be mitigated by choosing a bigger supplier with greater financial security. On the other hand we have seen plenty of successful altnet schemes (B4RN, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic etc.), although many of those take a more commercial approach.

Meanwhile the residents of Garsdale and Dentdale will want to know if they’ll ever see any of their funding returned, let alone what their prospects are for getting faster broadband in the future. The possibility of a protracted dispute between Fibre GarDen and ITS Tech means that the current situation of broadband limbo may continue for a while.

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