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Concerns Over Delay to Award of Scotland’s R100 Broadband Contract UPDATE

Thursday, March 21st, 2019 (4:35 pm) - Score 2,106
scotland broadband map uk project split

The Scottish Government (SG) has been heavily criticised by an opposition Conservative MP, John Lamont, after it confirmed that the bidding process for their £600m R100 (Reaching 100%) programme was still ongoing and that contracts would now be vaguely awarded some time “during 2019.”

At present around 94% of premises in Scotland can access a “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) ISP network if they so desire and the existing £400m+ Digital Scotland (DSSB) project with BT (Openreach), which has been rolling out FTTC and a little FTTP technology for the past few years, is set to continue some of its work until September 2019. This may well end up leaving a c.5% gap left to fix.

In response to that the Scottish Government have been busy developing the new R100 follow-on programme, which raises the definition of “superfast” to 30Mbps+ and originally aimed to achieve universal coverage of that by the end of 2021; or March 2022 as a financial year (here and here).

The proposed investment was aimed at prioritising superfast connections to as many as possible of the estimated 147,000 rural premises not currently receiving at least 24Mbps. Under the original plan we expected the first contract(s) to be awarded by the end of 2018, but this was later delayed and we were expecting the final bids for R100 to be submitted in January 2019, followed by a contract award in March 2019.

So far nothing has been announced and John Lamont MP has been trying to find out why for the past month. The reply finally came this week, albeit wrapped in some degree of ambiguity.

Paul Wheelhouse, Scottish Minister for Connectivity, said:

“Thank you for your letter of 19 February 2019 to the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in relation to progress on the Scottish Government’s Reaching 100% (R100) Programme. As the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, I have been asked to respond on her behalf.

The procurement process for R100 is now well underway and I can confirm that we have three highly credible bidders currently engaged in dialogue. The procurement process is, however, complex and tightly bound by law and procurement rules. I will of course advise the Scottish Parliament first when we are in a position to award the contract, but I can confirm that this is anticipated during 2019.

I trust this information is of use to you. I am sorry that I cannot be … [sic] on the details at this stage, but will endeavour to make sure all MSP’s [sic] and MP’s [sic] are kept well informed of details as they emerge.”

No reason has been given for the delay, although it’s interesting to note that three “credible bidders” are still involved at this late stage (originally it was BT, Gigaclear, Axione and SSE Enterprise Telecoms). Last August we revealed that a legal dispute between two of the potential suppliers (BT and Axione) had erupted but since then there has been nothing new on the subject (here), although quietly we’ve heard that a dispute between bidders is on-going but it’s unclear if this includes BT.

Naturally John Lamont has been only too keen to remind the Scottish Government’s Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing SNP, of his pledge to quit if he couldn’t complete the roll-out project by 2021 (here), which is starting to look increasingly likely.

John Lamont MP told ISPreview.co.uk:

“There has been radio silence from the Scottish Government on broadband in recent months, so I am not hugely surprised that the R100 programme is already delayed.

Given the Cabinet Secretary in charge said he would stand down if the programme was late, I would have thought he would want to keep on top of things.

Since it was announced, the R100 programme has been touted as the solution for everyone in the Borders who has an issue with their broadband. Now we learn the project hasn’t even started, is already months behind schedule and that no money has been actually set aside for it yet.

The UK Government has provided more funding per head to Scotland than any other part of the UK to deliver better broadband, but the Scottish Government have let people in rural areas down. It is hugely frustrating for too many people that we are still lagging behind the rest of the UK. It is a complete nonsense in this day and age that nearly one in five people in the Borders do not have access to decent broadband.”

In fairness Scotland faces an extremely challenging task as the remaining 5% live in some of the most sparse and rugged terrain, which given the growing focus on expensive “full fibre” technology could prove to be a very difficult nut to crack. We’ve already seen how some similarly grand aspirations in Wales have, as the reality of the huge economic and technical challenge sets in, fallen well short of early expectations (here).

On top of that there remains some confusion over how the SG can best balance R100 against the forthcoming 10Mbps+ Universal Service Obligation (USO) in order to minimise the potential for duplicating any public investment. The USO does carry a 12 month rule to cover areas that are already in another roll-out plan, but this won’t cover every eventuality and still leaves some room for a clash.

The longer this goes on the more the SG may be tempted to fall back on cheaper satellite and fixed wireless broadband solutions, which will not help to achieve the wider UK goal of delivering nationwide FTTP coverage by the end of 2033. At this point it’s worth reminding readers that the responsibility for improving broadband in Scotland is reserved to Westminster.

UPDATE 25th March 2019

A credible source has informed us that Openreach / BT are no longer part of any dispute in the R100 contract / bidding process.

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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.
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7 Responses
  1. Avatar craski

    Maintaining communication with the public during contractual negotiations was never going to happen (is nigh on impossible) but with such ambitious targets, any slippage in contract award is bound to have a knock on effect on the delivery dates.

    I’ll be impressed if they actually reach the stage of awarding anything that vaguely represents the original intent.
    Come on R100, please dont be the next wave of disappointments for those left in not spots!

  2. Avatar Gary HILTON

    Here we go again, Sparse and rugged terrain”, Some yes, but not most of us. Its a fallacy to keep trotting out this remote, rural, difficult, whatever tripe and to be blunt, as the choice was made not to move adsl connectivity outwards to the cabinets, fttp is the most logical and realistic option for hard connectivity improvement . 4G/5G may be, maybe not, cheaper in the short term but fails against the policy of full fibre as the long term goal and FTTC is simply not the appropriate tech for the dispersed nature of rural properties.

    The design of the FTTC rollout in Rural areas has hindered not helped the further expansion into rural areas with the large distances back to AG nodes and the short sighted placement of FTTC cabinets mostly it seems in the same location as pots cabinets with no regard to their vastly different technologies and limitations.

    No doubt numbers served vs cost played a large part in these choices, but they were flawed choices, in terms of what we actually needed to do.

    What those of us unserved by FTTC/BDUK ‘investment’ are now left with is new infrastructure with basically the same issues as ADSL, n that the connection point is still just too far away and the AG nodes are usually even further away than the cabinets.

    We are called difficult and hard to reach, but here in Moray and Aberdeenshire for example a large majority are spread along minor roads with current cables laid in dirt at the side of the roads, the Civils compared to digging or trenching pavements and across multiple roads in dense areas are cheap and simple, the very opposite to what is constantly stated.

    R100 will be a disappointment, it is sadly never going to meet what was, if we’re all honest a pipe dream of a timescale, I shudder to think what the actual cost would be to achieve its originally stated aims in the timescale given.

    • Avatar NGA for all

      @GArt, the shortcomings of the cabinet were understood, hence the budgets for in-fill, which folk report as ‘savings’ but are anything but, it is just work undone. There is still much that can be done and the money is there to do it. I hope the contracts resolve themselves but the underlying cost of overlaying overhead is observed as no more than £2 pm so it is relatively cheap.
      We still need more transparency on BT’s direct capital contributions. This exchange with Audit Scotland might be of interest-https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/audit-scotland-bt-funding-expected-mike-kiely/ There is separate piece showing rural monies being diverted from rural to Glasgow which now need reversing. I have sent that to Ministers but just a blaggy response from an official unfamiliar with the subject matter.

    • Avatar Joe

      Lots of what they are giving excuses for applies to many parts of the UK inc Wales parts of the SW in England and NI. The SG have managed to be pretty useless at the R100

    • Avatar CarlT

      Does the contract have clearly demarcated ‘rural monies’ and urban ones?

      Laying fibre on poles at that price assumes zero issues relating to needing additional poles, replacement of existing ones, any instances where shared utility poles complicate things, etc. Given in urban areas to provide comprehensive coverage is costing Openreach nearly 400GBP / premises passed it seems fair to assume that if rural areas could actually be covered as cheaply as you suggest they’d be all over it on a commercial basis.

  3. Avatar ChrisD

    It’s hard to be surprised at a delay to R100 when you look at how the existing BDUK rollout has been/is being managed on the ground in Scotland. Speaking from experience, numerous push-backs of the build dates (“I can’t give you an exact date but it’ll be no later than September 2018, then December 2018, March 2019, now December 2019”), duplicate and wasted money/effort from OR and their contractors (fibre has been run then replaced 3 separate times down our road!) and we’re still not live. While I welcome John Lamont raising awareness, (he is my MP) he’s done little to hold SG to account for the existing rollout and will usually find any excuse to have a public pop at the SNP.

  4. Avatar Flak

    The three remaining bidders are Axione, BT and Gigaclear:

    http://www.cosla.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/19-03-01_item_03_environment_and_economy_board_plan.pdf

    A key problem with the programme is that it appears to rule out technologies in preference for an all fibre infrastructure. While the ambition is laudable, in reality this means that 100% coverage in Scotland will not be achieved in the timescales and within the budget that has been outlined.

    If fixed wireless access, (low earth orbit and geostationary) satellite broadband and 4G/5G (and perhaps even some more futuristic technologies) had been given the proper chance and opportunity as part of this procurement process, perhaps the likely outcome would be more in line with the 30Mbps plan, budget and timeframe.

    All of these technologies are evolving with the promise of greater bandwidth and capability and while fibre clearly has the technical upper hand in terms of bandwidth potential and latency, the economic and timescale realities should have opened the door more widely.

    The way the R100 procurement is structured will result in R99.x – with more money then needed to fund the remaining 0.y % coverage. I feel for those households and businesses who will faithfully wait for R100 coverage, only to be disappointed again after a 3 year wait…

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