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Labour Calls for North Swindon to Stop UKBN Wireless Broadband Rollout

Thursday, June 15th, 2017 (1:21 pm) - Score 1,471

The Labour Leader for North Swindon, Jim Grant, has called on the council to stop spending public money on the construction of a superfast (24Mbps+) fixed wireless broadband network from UKB Networks because it is now in “direct competition” with BT and Virgin Media’s new “fibre” networks.

The history of broadband connectivity in North Swindon (Wiltshire) is a long and politically convoluted one. Until recently most premises in the northern half of the town suffered from a lack of access to faster “fibre broadband” because, according to the Swindon Borough Council, neither BT (Openreach) nor Virgin Media had showed much concrete interest in upgrading the local fixed line infrastructure.

After trying and apparently failing to secure an agreement with the two big boys, the local authority eventually contracted UKB Networks, at a cost of £1.9 million, to build a new 4G based Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) network that could deliver a minimum 24Mbps download speed. This aimed to reach over 19,500 homes and businesses in the intervention area (13,000 were in outlying rural areas).

However, many in the local area continued to campaign for “fibre” connectivity and some were able to disrupt UKBN’s deployment plans (example). Nevertheless UKBN proceeded with their deployment, although this occurred at about the same time as Virgin Media (Project Lightning) and BT both seemed to be having a slow change of heart.

Last year Virgin Media announced that their ultrafast cable broadband and TV network would be extended to 7,000 premises in North Swindon (here) and this was followed two weeks later by a similar commitment from Openreach (BT), which pledged to reach 6,500 premises with their FTTP service (here). BT are also testing their new G.fast technology with 19,800 premises in the town (here).

Suffice to say that the contract with UKBN has now been put under some strain.

Councillor Jim Grant said (Swindon Advertiser):

“North Swindon residents have always said they wanted fibre optic broadband and now they are getting it I think it would be wrong to invest taxpayers’ money to fund direct competition to BT. Especially competition that residents don’t want.

Frankly, local residents and the Labour Group have said from the very beginning that the Conservative cabinet were embarking on a big mistake in rolling out the UKBN’s infrastructure.

Thankfully huge sums haven’t been wasted yet, but now is the time to draw an end to this scheme.”

In fairness, both BT and Virgin Media only made a solid commitment sometime after the UKBN contract had been signed and it would have helped a lot if they had both been more pro-active a few years earlier. In addition, the local authority only had a comparatively small pot of money and the wireless approach gave them the ability to reach many more premises than might have otherwise been possible via fixed lines.

On the other hand the Labour Group are correct to say that the council now finds themselves in a tricky situation, where public money is being spent to fund a wireless network that is both slower and also in competition with the commercial fixed line upgrades being deployed by BT and Virgin Media.

At present no decisions have been made about the future viability of the contract, although Conservative councillor Toby Elliott claims to be in discussions with UKBN. “It remains an option to remove North Swindon from contract. This is due to the market intervening thanks to our work,” said Toby.

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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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15 Responses
  1. New_Londoner says:

    IIRC the reason that the council contracted with UKBN is because it decided not to use the BDUK framework contract. Instead it wasted a lot of time and money running its own procurement which led to it selecting a largely unproven fixed wireless provider, despite the council having failed with its two previous wireless projects.

    Swindon Borough Council clearly doesn’t learn from experience, I’m just glad that my council tax isn’t being wasted on this!

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Somewhat overlooking that BT and Virgin Media’s current network extensions are both commercial, suggesting that public money was perhaps not such an obstacle for either (admittedly modern deployments are more efficient).

  2. wirelesspacman says:

    “and also in competitive with the”

    That aspect is irrelevant as there was no competition at the time of contract award. Indeed both BT and VM stated quite firmly at the time that they had no intention of rolling out to that part of Swindon. Both companies were also free, if they so wished, to bid for the BDUK money.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Legally irrelevant, yes, but not politically 🙂 .

    2. Ultraspeedy says:

      110% agreed with wirelesspacman, BT and VM had no interest when they thought there was no money to be made from the area, now they see there is a ripe flock of broadband users to fleece from anothers organisation.

      Also surely if UKB Networks project was agreed to first and installed there first, how is that suddenly the competition?

      Surely the competition is someone newer to the area, in this case BT and VM. At least that is how i thought it always worked, real life example small local grocer forced out of business as a supermarket giant turns up.

      You have to wonder what is in the bottled water at government meetings.

    3. Steve Jones says:

      ” Indeed both BT and VM stated quite firmly at the time that they had no intention of rolling out to that part of Swindon.”

      That’s a misrepresentation of OMR. The requirement for OMR is not that commercial providers have no intention of commercial development. It is the opposite. Commercial operators have to make specific statements that they have plans (and credible ones) for investment in those areas. It’s simply not enough to say it’s “under consideration”. If you want evidence, B4RN made exactly the same complaint – OMR requires positive plans, not a statement that “there is no intention”.

  3. SwindonResident says:

    Swindon Council also had experience of a very bad procurement with BT for other services, this was also one of the reasons NOT to use the BDUK Framework as the Authority needed to demonstrate that they had learnt lessons from mistakes. BT have built into Swindon directly overbuilding the BDUK programme despite stating in the OMR process that they had no delivery plans. This actually demonstrates that the Commercial viability argument of a public funded intervention is utter rubbish!The BDUK programme stimulated demand, BT then used this demand to to deliver services and stick two fingers up to the Council. Surely the Swindon procurement was awarded based on BDUK Value for Money decisions? And that is why BT failed to win (if they actually did bid?)

  4. Fastman says:

    based on BDUK Value for Money decisions? hhhm actually one of those criterias I understand was no FWA

    1. SwindonResident says:

      “no FWA”? Why would this be? not NGA or because it is not BT? I don’t think I have read any broadband OPEN tender that is technology specific? Just need to hit the NGA criteria which , as I understand it, BDUK are quite hot on. If a tender stated FTTC or FTTP only then that would not meet the criteria of an open tender?

    2. MikeW says:

      At the start of BDUK’s programme, no-one believed that FWA was capable of meeting the NGA performance requirements. The feasibility study work going on (in the 2010-2011 timescale) was based, essentially, on FTTC being the minimum qualifying technology. That seems to have been a widely held belief.

      It is this background that led to the basic 90% target, with that being seen as achievable with the (minimum) FTTC-style technology, with the budget that was then available (that we now know as phase 1). There was no thought to a mixed solution achieving, say, 85% FTTC and 99% FWA.

      FWA only started to be seen as acceptable as the EU state approval came along in 2012, but by then it was too late to gain much traction. The pilots were up and running without FWA anyway, and the non-pilot authorities were well into their tendering process. I don’t think there was much appetite to write everything off and start again, so inertia won out.

    3. MikeW says:

      In 2015, my county was waiting to see what happened after the election, before deciding whether to continue with more fixed-line work, or to swap to a wireless rollout for the rest.

      However, extra funding plans kinda went quiet towards the end of the year – perhaps stifled because BT started their process of re-calculating takeup, and offering higher clawback then.

      Not forgetting that no real results came out of the wireless & satellite MTPs.

      It all seems to have led authorities to just continuing going further with their existing plans, apart from the lucky places where Gigaclear choose to get involved.

  5. MrWhite says:

    The whole thing has been mis-managed over the years. Given that a new exchange (Haydon Wick) had to be built to accommodate the proposed number of houses, provision could easily have been made at the time for FTTC. The exchange was not only late coming online (leaving some residences without even a phone line), but stuffed full of 20CN kit, when other exchanges around the country were already being upgraded.

  6. Interesting to see calls for a BDUK funded project to be halted in favour of later commercial deployment by BT and Virgin Media. The public funding process has to take into account any commercial plans before the state aid is granted – meaning that BT and Virgin Media did not give an adequate (or any) response to the Open Market Review and Public Consultation, before the tender was launched. If the call for a halt to the Swindon project succeeds it is likely to lead to similar calls all over the country for BT funded deployments to be halted in favour of commercial deployments by altnets.

    1. Steve Jones says:

      The OMR only asks if a commercial operator has a serious intention to cover a particular area. Those plans have to be credible for the relevant postcodes to be omitted from the intervention area. Some tentative expression of a possibile commercial area were not enough and would have left a lot of people high-and-dry on the basis of a tentative expression of interest by a commercial operator. Presumably VM and BT have updated their commercial plans in light of the level of take-up and, possibly, the amount of new housing being built in those areas.

      B4RN made exactly that point. They felt unable to respond to the OMR as it required a level of commitment that they did not feel able to make at the time. Consequently there were overbuilds, but the local BDUK project did make some adjustments to their deployments during the implementation phase.

      In any event, in this case, it is not BT or VM that are lobbying to close down the BDUK FWA project, it’s members of the local council that feel public money is in danger of being wasted on a network that might now get few customers. Of course its a bit sticky if a contract has been placed.

      I should also add that VM’s project lightning has, or is intending to, overbuild some BDUK assisted areas, but that has not caused any complaints.

  7. John Miles says:

    If the very large providers ( BT, VM ) won’t promise to provide coverage they should then be locked out for a period ( e.g. 5 – 7 years ), rather like granting a fixed term franchise. This would both focus their minds, and allow smaller innovative providers to enter the market with the certainty that they will not be blown away by the large provider suddenly using its investment clout to move in on the patch they have just invested in.

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