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UPDATE Uncertainty Stalls South Somerset Superfast Broadband Strategy

Friday, May 27th, 2016 (9:08 am) - Score 440
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The South Somerset District Council (SSDC) has stalled plans to put £640,000 into the central Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) programme because of uncertainty over how the clawback reinvestment from BT and plans for a 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation might impact the roll-out.

As many readers will recall the CDS scheme has had a rocky year, which started in June 2015 when the local authorities found themselves unable to agree a Superfast Extension Programme (SEP) contract with BT that could have expanded superfast broadband (24Mbps+) coverage to an additional 34,400 premises by the middle of 2020 (here).

At present the CDS project is working with BT to make “superfast broadband” networks available to over 90% of local homes and businesses by the end of 2016, but the councils felt as if the operator’s proposed expansion beyond the 90% goal did not represent “value for money” and would fail to reach the 95% coverage target. On the flip side BT found the economic case to be very challenging, not least due to the remote rural terrain.

The decision left the councils stumbling around to find an alternative, which was likely to require an open market tender and involve alternative network providers (several fixed line and wireless ISPs have expressed an interest). The decision was also taken just as the old umbrella EU State Aid agreement expired and a new one has only just been agreed this week, which has of course added to the delays.

Unfortunately the South Somerset District Council (SSDC) has now thrown an additional spanner into the works after a recent report and meeting chose to retain the £640,000 provisional allocation that was originally committed to the CDS scheme in June 2015 (credits to View News for the spot).

SSDC Council Statement

“[The council] considered the report and, given the current uncertainty surrounding the Superfast Broadband programme occasioned by the Queen’s speech announcement and the report of £258m BT profit that is being returned to the programme, this Council resolved to retain the £640,000 provisional allocation to Connecting Devon and Somerset made in June 2015, until there was greater clarification on how and where that money would be utilised for the benefit of South Somerset residents or businesses.”

The CDS project has yet to reveal their plans for clawback (gain share), which is the contract mechanism that requires BT to return part of the public investment when adoption of the new service passes beyond the 20% mark in related areas; this can then be reinvested to boost network coverage. Overall around £258 million has so far been confirmed across the UK and CDS should receive a reasonable slice of that.

Similarly the Government’s plan to introduce a 10Mbps USO (summary of the issues), which was again confirmed as part of the recent Queen’s Speech, has thrown an additional spanner into the works as the local authority is not sure how much impact this might have upon their future strategy. Admittedly the USO may only be set at 10Mbps, but some of the technologies being proposed to help deliver it might also impact “superfast” coverage too.

On top of that SSDC had “expressed a wish” that the benefit of the future programme be targeted at businesses, although this would be somewhat in conflict with the programme’s original purpose that is focused upon connecting remote rural communities and not only SMEs.

Meanwhile other counties around the UK appear to have had no problems dealing with the question of clawback, often as part of a separate / unique extension contract to the main project. Similarly the USO policy is not expected to be finalised until around 2017/18 and it won’t then be enforced until 2020.

As such any local authority that chooses to wait too long for absolute clarity may ultimately run the risk of suffering significant delays and CDS has already had enough of those, hasn’t it? The ones who suffer most will be those still stuck on slow broadband lines.

UPDATE 11:39am

In related news the CDS programme has today welcomed the new EU State Aid agreement and confirmed that the second phase of the their superfast broadband programme can now finally proceed to procurement, albeit presumably without full support from South Somerset.

David Hall, Somerset Cabinet Member for Business, said:

“This is great news, a major milestone for the extension of superfast broadband across Devon and Somerset has been passed. Once we have the up to date information we’ve asked for from BT and other broadband firms about their future commercial plans, we can get on with the tender process for phase two across our region. This is very welcome news for residents and businesses across our 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.
Leave a Comment
1 Response
  1. Avatar MikeW

    I’m looking forward to seeing where CDS goes with this now.

    SSDC is, I feel, being canny. Why bother chasing higher superfast speeds if someone else is about to pay to mop up at 10Mbps instead?

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