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UPD Aylesbury Vale Council Hands FTTH Broadband Network to Gigaclear

Saturday, December 30th, 2017 (8:32 pm) - Score 2,664

The Aylesbury Vale District Council has handed control of Aylesbury Vale Broadband (assets / network) to UK ISP Gigaclear for an undisclosed sum, which will continue the operator’s rollout of “full fibre” (FTTH/P) ultrafast broadband services to rural villages in Buckinghamshire.

The project, which was initially supported by around £700,000 in the form of a publicly funded commercial loan from AVDC that itself acted as a 95% shareholder (most of AVBs directors work for the council), has been steadily building its network out to serve around 2,000 premises in several villages (e.g. Hoggeston, Granborough, North Marston, Swanbourne, Soulbury and Stewkley).

However over the past year or so AVB has also run into the odd overbuilding challenge with Gigaclear (here) and a local fixed wireless broadband provider or two (e.g. Village Networks), with the latter even prompting a competition complaint to the European Commission (here). Concerns over the financial stability of AVB have also been raised by various councillors (nobody ever said doing FTTH/P was cheap).

More recently some locals have criticised AVB for a lack of deployment progress and a few have demanded their deposits back. At the same time others have been frustrated by “technical” (slow speeds etc.) or support problems on the network. Suffice to say that few were surprised when we reported on 11th November that AVDC had been actively “exploring expressions of interest” in the company (here). AVB then issued the following update.

AVB Statement – 12th November 2017

Sorry for the long silence but we assure you we’re listening! We apologise that some customers are struggling with low or variable speed connections. We know it’s frustrating and promise we’re working hard to resolve the issues. As reported elsewhere, we’re in the process of restructuring the business which is a delicate exercise and ask you to bear with us a little longer while we get things back on track.

We’re concerned that some people have commented on problems contacting AVB support by telephone. We’ve looked into this and found a fault with our call handling process that meant a few calls have been missed. Again, we apologise and now we know there’s a problem we’ll fix it but, in the meantime, we’ve been responding to email support requests as normal.

Moving forward, our immediate priority is providing a stable, high performance service to existing customers before we grow the network further and we’ll be contacting customers who’ve paid deposits in due course to discuss their options. On a positive note, we have many satisfied customers and a great infrastructure that’s brought fibre broadband to rural areas in Aylesbury Vale that previously had no prospect of receiving it.

Because of the sensitivities we cannot discuss specific issues further on a public forum like this but ask that you give us just a few more weeks to secure a long-term solution.

At the time of our last article we speculated that Gigaclear might be in the frame for a deal and today’s news confirms it. On top of that AVDC has recently announced that they intend to conduct an independent inquiry into the AVB project, which will also examine the difficulties with conducting proper scrutiny of council funded schemes (here).

Janet Blake, Aylesbury Vale Broadband, said (customer email):

We are delighted to announce that we have agreed the sale of the Aylesbury Vale Broadband Ltd (AVB) network to Gigaclear plc, the leading supplier of ultrafast full fibre broadband to rural locations.

Since 2015 AVB has provided ultrafast broadband to seven Aylesbury Vale villages, but there are other local communities that AVB cannot reach without significant additional investment. Gigaclear is a company with the resources and expertise to continue the good work started by AVB and their commitment to growing the network in Aylesbury Vale was an important consideration in the shareholders’ decision to sell AVB’s assets.

We are extremely proud of everything AVB has achieved. When we started the company, our primary aim was to bring high speed broadband to rural parts of Aylesbury Vale that, otherwise, had little likelihood of being connected. We now have one of the most advanced broadband infrastructures of any rural district in the UK. Having stimulated the market, the time is right to pass the reigns on to a company with the resources to grow the network quickly and benefit many more residents. Like us, Gigaclear want to provide a great service and we’re confident they will build on the foundations that we’ve laid.

Gigaclear has purchased the assets of the business, rather than the AVB company itself, which means that you will need to sign up with Gigaclear if you want your service to continue. You will shortly receive a letter from Gigaclear explaining the next steps you will need to take. Gigaclear will keep supplying your service during the transition phase which will last until 31st January 2018. At that point, if you have not signed up to an agreement with them and given them your payment details, your current broadband service will cease.

Your Direct Debit with AVB will be cancelled with effect from 31 January 2018 and we will then remove your payment details and personal information from our records.

Gigaclear has already built a “full fibre” (FTTP/H) network in Great Brickhill, Soulbury, Botolph Claydon, Calvert Green, Marsh Gibbon, Grendon Underwood and Piddington. The ISP has also committed to “completing the network builds” by end of Q3 2018 in Stewkley, Oving, Drayton Parslow and Swanbourne (this should cover the “majority of residents” in these areas). Apparently they will then start evaluating other areas in Aylesbury Vale for a future deployment.

In terms of deposits, AVB has pledged to refund any deposits it holds for people awaiting connection to the network and “will contact you soon to arrange this“. However it’s worth noting that customers who switch to Gigaclear will find that they charge a higher price for the same service speed than AVB. On AVB the popular 100Mbps service was £38 per month and this jumps to £46.85 with Gigaclear (not factoring setup fees).

At least now locals should be able to take some comfort from the fact that the long-running uncertainty over AVB has finally been resolved and the network expansion looks set to continue.

UPDATE 2nd Jan 2018

We’ve added the following comment from Gigaclear. Apparently the sale of the business assets to Gigaclear was also agreed by a General Purposes committee meeting of the council on 20th November 2017.

Brett Shepherd, Chief Operating Officer of Gigaclear, said:

“We’re delighted to take over the infrastructure that AVB has laid to enable the local Aylesbury Vale residents to access future proofed technology. Our intention is to make this process as seamless as possible for existing customers, as well as expand our offering so more of the local community can connect to our network quickly and experience the very best broadband technology.”

UPDATE 5th Jan 2018

We understand from some AVB customers that Gigaclear has pledged to keep the monthly charge the same as AVB for 12 months.

Leave a Comment
14 Responses
  1. Avatar Patrick Cosgrove says:

    It would be very interesting to see a map of Gigaclear’s current and planned coverage. Picture speak a thousand words – far more than a list of towns and villages.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      I think this should be updated on Gigaclear’s website already or soon.

  2. Avatar Fastman says:

    Interesting to see what amount goes back to AVDC following the sale I note that The project, which was initially supported by around £700,000 in the form of a publicly funded commercial loan from AVDC that itself acted as a 95% shareholder (most of AVBs directors work for the council), – I assume this will com out as part of the independent enquiry

    1. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      What makes you think any of this will come out? There is scope for disguising the full cost of this to local tax payers. Among other things, I suspect the actual amount of money that Gigaclear has paid for the assets is subject to confidentiality clauses. It is informative that the inquiry seems to be about the problems of reporting on the progress of what is a 95% council owned company, which on the face of it, sounds rather peculiar.

      However, we will see. I have an interest in that my mother is an ADVC tax payer (but not in the roll-out area).

    2. Avatar Gadget says:

      We can only hope that NGAforAll will chase the monies in this as tenaciously as he does with the BDUK programmes.

    3. Avatar Noitche says:

      Correct me if I’m wrong here but Gigaclear has crucially purchased only the assets of AVB, not the company as a whole.

      AVB is still lumbered with the £700k debt. The sum that Gigaclear paid is undisclosed and will remain so.

      So is there not a potential here for AVB to default on its debt to the council (funded by the public). All this after councillors have (potentially) made some bank off of separate directorships. There’s also plausible suspicions around the same councillors relationship with Gigaclear, who appear to have been the largest winners out of this whole thing.

  3. Avatar Fastman says:

    think this one will run for a bit

  4. Avatar Taxpayer says:

    The perfect illustration of why Local Authorities should not get involved in running high-risk pseudo-Private Sector companies. The lack of transparency is fine if it’s private money at risk; not when it’s 100% taxpayer funds.

  5. Avatar tonyp says:

    I’m not sorry a smaller but established national player has got a foothold in the area. Hopefully this will benefit the rapidly growing town and surrounding area. The proximity to the ‘East-West rail corridor’ opening up between M.K. and Oxford would seem to be a good opportunity in Buckinghamshire. AVB has laid ‘tentacles’ into villages which will probably grow significantly. If Gigaclear can capitalise on the opportunities, it should be quite a boost to the local economy.

  6. Avatar Roger Carey says:

    Cllr Mrs Blake constantly maintains that AVB was set up because ‘no-one else was interested in providing broadband to the area’ or that her aim was to bring broadband to rural parts of Aylesbury Vale ‘that, otherwise, had little likelihood of being connected’. Although she was a Director of the company, she was obviously misinformed. Village Networks and Rapid Rural were both operating in the same areas providing superfast speeds and higher, before AVB was formed. Other officers and members of AVDC knew that, as did Andrew Mills, MD of AVB. AVB deliberately overbuilt both those wireless operators, diluting the market not only for their competitor, but for themselves as well. It’s worth noting that AVB itself was originally intended to be a fixed wireless ISP, but delusions of technological grandeur overwhelmed them at an early stage.

    Staring insolvency in the face, AVDC received expressions of interest from a total of four separate parties, three of them local. Only one, Gigaclear, was allowed to submit a bid. What a great way to maximise shareholder value.

    I can’t blame anyone for putting a positive spin on what is by any measure a profound lack of success, but to claim that, since 2015, AVB has provided broadband to seven villages is, simply, a fib. It hasn’t. The real achievement is around half of that claimed.

    And to describe an incomplete, limping, failure-prone patchy-coverage rural GPON FTTP network as one of the most advanced broadband infrastructures of any rural district in the UK is stretching things beyond credibility. Or is Mrs Blake including Village Networks and Rapid Rural? In which case she is, of course, absolutely right.

    1. Avatar Andrew Mills says:

      Not going to get into a debate over this but to clarify a few of Roger’s points:

      1. To the best of my knowledge Rapid Rural were not providing a broadband service anywhere in Aylesbury Vale when AVB was founded. I have emails between myself and Stuart (Rapid Rural) confirming this.

      2. Village Networks were delivering in the area but, apart from one village, no customers were willing to vouch for receiving super-fast speeds from VN. They were also not formally recognised by Connected Counties as being able to provide super-fast broadband (and as far as I am aware that is still the case).

      3. AVB is a full fibre network and does not use GPON technology.

      4. AVB was not staring insolvency in the face and any suggestion of that is a lie.

      Finally, AVB was always intended to be a mixed technology company delivering at least super-fast broadband and not just a wireless ISP. That remains the case and AVB did pilot the use of air fibre to deliver ultra-fast speeds to some customers.

      Suffice to say, if AVB’s network was as bad as Roger suggests then Gigaclear would not be acquiring it.

  7. Avatar Roger Carey says:

    My heart always sinks when Andrew starts with ‘not going to get into a debate about his’. But to take his points in order, and gets some facts straight:

    1: Wrong To my certain knowledge, Rapid Rural was delivering extremely fast broadband in the Vale of Aylesbury long before AVB was founded. At the request of Connected Counties, Village Networks was about to build a superfast network in North Marston when Andrew Mills, as a representative of the community, asked us to ‘hold-off any further action’ while he had talks with the Council. We complied, because we thought he was off fund-raising. We were right, but were quite surprised when it turned out he was fund-raising for AVB instead.

    2: Wrong. Village Networks had fulfilled NGA accreditation requirements , and our coverage was shown on Connected Counties maps as grey areas before AVB was founded. All our subscribers, save those in very difficult locations, or on a budget tariff, get superfast speeds and more.

    3: Wrong (on my side) about AVB technology. Complete absence of anything more than two cabinets anywhere in 75 km of fibre led me to the GPON notion. Couldn’t see how it could be done any other way. Apologies.

    4: Show us the management accounts, and we’ll believe you. Until then, no claim that AVB had a viable future remains credible. Pretty much everyone knew roughly how many subscribers had signed up, how much had been spent, how much you were paid, and how much had to be repaid, by when. Simple sums a GCSE Business Studies candidate could have done. And, by Janet Blake’s own admission (Oving PC meeting, December 2017), the company could not afford any further investment in the incomplete network, hence its sale.
    Finally, a single 750m wireless link does not a mixed technology company make. But why stop at one little link? Wireless would have delivered the coverage that AVB couldn’t afford with fibre. Why change the plan? (Mind you, the cost of a strategy using AirFibre for sub km PTP links with single subscribers would put anyone off wireless).
    Gigaclear are buying it, Andrew, simply because you’ve done the grunt work, laying the ducting. All they have to do is blow the fibre and connect people. They’re not buying a goose which lays golden eggs. They’re snapping up a bargain, and paying what is to them chump change. Plenty of other people were interested in buying the AVB assets – a shame they weren’t allowed to bid. Your 5% might have been worth even more.

    Those of you who want some insight into the beginnings of what went wrong should watch the Aylesbury Vale District Council webcast at
    https://aylesburyvaledc.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/321536.
    Item 8, Cllr Anders Christensen.

    And now, whether or not Andrew wants the last words, I’m out of this. Christensen says it all, much better than me.

  8. Avatar Taxpayer says:

    Just watched that video. My God, how depressing to see all those Conservative lickspittles lining up to ensure that the ‘review’ into the lack of governance of AVB will itself suffer the same conflicts of interests and political control that the company itself did. There needs to be a criminal investigation into this appalling and wilful waste of OUR MONEY.

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