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Northumberland UK Council to Setup Own Fibre Builders Team

Thursday, February 6th, 2020 (10:24 am) - Score 1,449

The Northumberland County Council in England appears to be proposing a new plan to the UK Government, which – if funding can be secured – would see the local authority using their own skills and resources to help dig new “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband ISP networks into remote rural communities (inc. installations direct to homes).

At present the existing iNorthumberland project, which is working alongside Openreach (BT) and the Government’s Building Digital UK programme, is trying to make “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) capable FTTC and a few ultrafast FTTP networks available to “over” 95% of the county (they’re at around 94% today). The project is behind schedule (95% was supposed to be achieved by the end of 2018) but is still making progress.

On top of that they’ve also launched a £1m voucher scheme to help reach digitally disadvantaged communities (here). Separately the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) is supporting a £24m project to rollout a new Gigabit capable “full fibre” network to public sector sites across rural parts of Newcastle, North Tyneside (Tyne and Wear) and Northumberland (here), although that won’t be much help to rural areas.

Assuming the iNorthumberland programme doesn’t change or get extended again then it may still end up leaving around 4% of premises without access to superfast broadband, which occurs at a time when the Government are pushing to spread “gigabit-capable” broadband to every home by the end of 2025.

The council’s solution seems to be one that would involve using their own resources and skills to help build full fibre or similar networks, as well as to install them into homes (Northumberland Gazette).

Councillor Nick Oliver, Cabinet Member for Corporate Services, said:

“It is one of those light-bulb moments when you start to think about how we connect some of our most rural homes to broadband, when major companies are unwilling or unable to link them up.

Within the council, we already have in-house vast expertise in terms of planning, laying trenches, building infrastructure and IT.

So rather than waiting for other organisations to develop longer-term solutions, we just want to get on with installing broadband and connecting communities – something that many of us just take for granted.

As a council, we’re committed to a can-do approach and working to ensure everyone can benefit from key services and feel part of the wider community, wherever they live in the county.”

The idea raises a whole raft of complicated questions, such as what services would they provide? Are they proposing to own and manage the network? The latter would be a risky idea as local authorities tend to have an appallingly history when it comes to building their own consumer broadband networks (e.g. Digital Region in South Yorkshire (here) and Aylesbury Vale Broadband in Buckinghamshire (here)).

On the other hand if they intend to provide a service to existing ISPs / operators by helping to build such networks – or at least part of them – then that would be more interesting, although at present no solid details about the proposed approach and costings have been revealed.

The council also needs to recognise that there is no magic fix to delivering full fibre and in rural areas there’s no escaping the hefty costs involved in such deployments. Getting involved in network building is thus not for the faint of heart and carries with it many risks – both politically and economically.

Otherwise we await some solid details of the scheme to see what sort of proposition is actually planned, although it’s suggested that if the plan is approved then work could begin this year. Openreach has previously claimed that some rural FTTP builds could cost as much as £4,000 per premises, while Ofcom uses a lower figure of £2,500 (here). In either case it’s an expensive problem to resolve.

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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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8 Responses
  1. joe says:

    I can’t see this ending well. Fib specialists exist for a reason.

    1. ianh says:

      If the stopped at just digging the trenches in advance and then filling them after….it would help speed things up. But it sounds like they have greater ambitions

    2. New_Londoner says:

      Sadly there are plenty of examples that any local authority dabbling in the area achieves is the loss of tax payer funds. Consider for example the Digital Region and Aylesbury Vale Broadband projects, both of which ended in disaster for the tax payer.

    3. joe says:

      @ianh all assuming they could dig just where other providers want. Its not always that easy.

    4. A_Builder says:

      It depends really on what they are providing.

      If they are just building ducts and chambers then most LA’s understand the metrics very well as this is a day job competency. My experience of LA street works teams is that they are very penny pinching!

      If they are building networks they won’t have a clue.

      So if they are providing infrastructure as an enabler then it **might** be valid.

  2. chris conder says:

    Good luck to them, they are northern men and women of grit, so they could well succeed. Other councils have just handed funding over to others. Building your own with your own people and community can work, and councils have the added benefit of not having to deal with petty council officials to share ducts and road crossings… if everyone works together it could be an amazing project. The big society everyone talked about that never happened. Power to the People.

    1. New_Londoner says:

      The Digital Region was run by a number of northern councils, is believed to have lost upwards of £100m! Local people aren’t necessarily competent, can end up wasting a lot of time, effort and money to deliver very little.

  3. Meadmodj says:

    Strange timing for such announcement when we still do not know what/when/how the Government intend to spend the £5bn. Also I have always concern that Councils that are having to make cuts don’t have statutory duties that are of a higher priority than broadband. A lighter touch and simpler use of any available subsidy BDUK, Voucher, LNNF etc with minimum LA involvement should be the way. Some LAs appear to make a meal of it despite out of date web sites and a lack of information.

    However there will be dwellings that are outside the current/proposed funding caps. So if there is a way via local self help to reduce the cost of installation to remote dwellings or hamlets such that these can be brought within the main programs has to be a good thing. The “major companies are unwilling or unable to link them up” seems to be a swipe at the rigid engineering standards and costs of OR.

    I don’t see a broadband distribution network being a core competency of the LA. Better in extreme rural situations that they engaged a suitable local WISP or convince OR to consider again FTTDp, FTTK and FTTM. I have mentioned before the possibility of say FTTP to the side of a farmer’s property leaving the farmer to provide a lower cost/self installed solution to their dwelling themselves so they still qualify for any government FTTP subsidy and are not excluded on cost grounds. Better they get at least Ultra (Giga possibly depending on them) if FTTP by the main provider isn’t achievable.

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