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Delays Bog Down ABC Rural Broadband Subsidy Scheme in Wales

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018 (12:01 am) - Score 965
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Several internet providers in Wales have accused the Welsh Government of falling behind in approval of grants and payments under the Access Broadband Cymru (ABC) scheme, which offers vouchers worth up to £800 to help isolated rural homes get a 30Mbps+ superfast broadband ISP installed.

At present Wales is home to two native voucher schemes – Access Broadband Cymru and Ultrafast Connectivity Vouchers (UCV is for businesses). The ABC scheme in particular offers vouchers to homes in areas that aren’t currently planned to benefit from the Superfast Cymru project with BT (Openreach) and which don’t currently have access to a “superfast connection“.

New connections delivered via ABC are typically required to deliver a step change in speed (i.e. at least double your current download speeds) and the amount of funding you could receive depends on the speed of the new connection (e.g. £400 for 10Mbps+ or £800 for 30Mbps+). A wide range of ISPs are approved to work with ABC and it’s particularly popular among alternative Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) providers.

Unfortunately all may not be well with the subsidy or the government’s administration of it. So far three ISPs have confirmed to ISPreview.co.uk that they’re suffering from growing delays with the approval of new ABC grants and related payments, which appears to have started around Christmas.

In one case an ISP, which has chosen to remain anonymous, submitted invoices for payment in January 2018 and they’re still waiting. Meanwhile before Christmas it’s alleged that WAG were taking around 5-6 weeks to approve grant applications and issue offer letters, while since Christmas they’ve been taking between 8 and 11 weeks to be approved.

A Spokesperson for the ISP said:

“After the install we raise an invoice to the Welsh Assembly, payment of these is even worse. For example, we sent invoices for installs in January and these are yet to be paid. This does not fall inline with the WAG Sell2Wales ‘Prompt Payment Policy‘. We raised these concerns with our local Assembly Member back in January, who is now assisting us with a formal complaint.

The concept of the grant is great, but execution of it is incredibly poor. A long initial approval delay for the public presents a poor image of the ISP and the very long payment delay makes investing in large infrastructure projects to support not spots hard work. For example, we have used the grant install fees to build mast sites and recently to begin trenching our own FTTP network.

Given the grant is ‘customer initiated‘ WAG will not discuss individual grant applications with us (now stating GDPR issues), thus causing the customer to have to repeatedly call and email the team asking for progress updates on their individual applications. Customers become frustrated with us as we cannot tell them the status of their application (even after the customer has shared their grant reference number).”

Funnily enough the problem appears to have started at around the same time as the Welsh Government set about unveiling their future broadband strategy, which aspires to help make “fast reliable broadband” (defined as 30Mbps+) available to “every property” in Wales (details here and here). This has led some to speculate that the delays might be related.

However, any concern about a possible conflict between ABC and the future deployment project appear to have been put to bed last week after Julie James AM, Leader of the House and Chief Whip, notified the assembly that she intended to “continue offering a voucher safety net for the foreseeable future.”

Julie James AM said:

“Members will be aware that we have been reviewing our ultrafast connectivity voucher and Access Broadband Cymru schemes. I’m pleased to confirm that it’s my intention to continue offering a voucher safety net for the foreseeable future. Work is ongoing to streamline the application processes to enhance the experience of those accessing the vouchers.

Members will be aware that the UK Government launched a UK-wide gigabit voucher scheme last month. I’m therefore reviewing the ongoing relevance of our ultrafast connectivity voucher scheme to avoid duplication or confusion, and I will update Members further on this ahead of the summer recess.

Finally, I am also planning to introduce a novel scheme that supports communities not reached by our latest procurement, but also where voucher support may not be the answer. This approach will not be firmed up until the current procurement has concluded and we have clarity on where the successful suppliers will reach.”

We have reached out to the Welsh Government via our usual press contacts to highlight the delays but their response doesn’t appear to fully address our core questions.

A Welsh Government spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“The ABC Scheme is available to residents and businesses who do not currently have access to superfast broadband. Payment is only made on a successful application once all backing documentation has been provided and evaluated to support a claim.

There is no binding contract with ISPs and the ABC Scheme is in place as a grant mechanism to which ISPs are only paid on an elective basis at the request of the applicant.”

Hopefully the delays become less of a problem as the year progresses and we will report again if the issues continue to get worse.

Leave a Comment
1 Response
  1. Avatar Meadmodj

    There is a conflict between these schemes and the Welsh Government will be criticised if the higher grants are approved that subsequently turn out to be covered by the Superfast Cymru. Although the Superfast Cymru aspiration is modest many covered by FTTC (near cabinet) and FTTP will of course have an option for faster speeds.
    The issue is probably that the current timescales and plans for Wales are not available for the many niche ISPs to consider any requirement against. No doubt there are many frustrated customers and ISPs, however this is public money.

    As for payment then that will impact the smaller ISPs more. They acknowledge the need for prompt payment to SMEs and also proposed the concept of Project Bank Accounts for infrastructure projects over £2m. Perhaps these payments are falling between these two definitions.

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