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Interview – Scotland’s R100 Boss Talks Future Broadband Plans

Saturday, May 9th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 2,736

The Programme Director for the Scottish Government’s £600m R100 (Reaching 100%) programme, Clive Downing, has kindly provided ISPreview.co.uk with some insight into their approach toward the planned extension of “superfast broadband” into some of the hardest to reach premises across Scotland.

At the end of 2019 nearly 94% of Scotland were able to order a fixed “superfast broadband” network (30Mbps+) and gigabit-capable “full fibre” (FTTP) services reached almost 8% of premises (here). Much of the improvement seen in superfast connectivity over the past few years has stemmed from the previous public and privately funded £442m Digital Scotland (DSSB) project with BT (Openreach).

By contrast the R100 project was first established as a follow-on programme to DSSB in 2017 (here), which originally aspired to extend superfast broadband connectivity to 100% of Scotland by the end of 2021 (March 2022 as a financial year). Naturally this focused on the final 5-6% of premises, which mostly reflected those in harder to reach rural areas where commercial investment alone cannot reach.

Sadly R100 suffered a number of delays during its procurement phase and the first of three contracts – for Central (LOT 2) and Southern (LOT 3) Scotland – were only awarded to BT (Openreach) last autumn (here). The project then suffered another blow after UK full fibre ISP Gigaclear lodged an unspecified legal challenge against the planned award of LOT 1 (North Scotland) to BT (here), which remains on-going.

On top of that an initial roll-out plan for LOT 2 and 3 has revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the project will not achieve its original completion target of 2021 and is instead likely to continue building until the end of 2023 (here). But on the positive side, most of what is now built will be 1Gbps capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology and so the longer wait should be worth it.

One other thing that Scotland has got right is to give new fibre optic lines a 10 year holiday (relief) from business rates (here), which is significantly better than the 5 year relief given by the UK Government. Crucially this is much closer to the long-term investment models that most full fibre operators need to follow (payback assumptions can be up to 15-20 years).

Enter Clive Downing

The man appointed to oversee the R100 programme is Clive Downing, who is also a Director of Independent Intelligence Limited. Downing has been designing public sector broadband initiatives since before Building Digital UK was created and has worked with the Scottish Government supporting Digital activity since 2012.

NOTE: Clive’s interview answers are his personal views and may not necessarily be those of the Scottish Government.

Clive’s background is in engineering and he’s also been involved with NYnet, the EU B3 programme, Bristol is open and IXScotland. “So, am I fibre purist? No, not as the only solution for good, usable broadband. However I firmly believe fibre is the future because investment is predicated on the low [operational expenditure] it enjoys, particularly for GPON,” said Clive to ISPreview.co.uk while discussing the future of R100.

According to Clive, there are now about 2.9 million premises in Scotland and about 250,000 of those cannot currently receive a superfast service. “Of these, there are about 100,000 that have commercial plans from a range of operators, large and small. This leaves 150,000 for the main intervention,” added Clive. R100 is expected to fill most of this and then Clive envisages the UK’s future £5bn scheme (here) as helping to do the rest.

We should point out that broadband is technically still the responsibility of Westminster (UK Government), although it’s not unusual for local and devolved authorities to contribute their own public funding to help major investment schemes to achieve a better result (this is true for most BDUK schemes across the UK too).

Otherwise you can read our full interview below, which touches on various issues from the Gigaclear case to overbuild and engineer shortages.

NOTE: The following interview was conducted just before the COVID-19 situation became a national crisis.

The R100 Interview

1. The Scottish government recently introduced a 10 year relief on business rates for new fibre optic lines, which goes beyond the UK Government’s previous 5 year relief and has been welcomed by broadband operators.

However, despite the improvement, many operators are still calling for a longer relief that would match their expected 15-20 payback forecasts for full fibre investment. Do you think Scotland has struck the right balance here and, if so, why?

ANSWER:

Yes, I believe it has. The Scottish Government was careful to engage with industry about what the right approach is – and 10 years is a long time as part of any business case. Also there is a quid pro quo in that operators were asked to sign up to the Scottish Government’s Full Fibre Charter. The scheme has had successes already with some new market entrants starting their deployment in Scotland and existing operators citing the scheme (in part) for allowing additional commercial expansion.

2. The Scottish Government has previously committed to invest £600 million into their Reaching 100% (R100) broadband roll-out programme. Can you tell us where all of this money is coming from by breaking the figure down by its sources (e.g. we know that £21m is from BDUK etc.)?

ANSWER:

That’s quite straightforward – £21m from BDUK, the rest from Scottish Government. As an investment gap funding initiative the operator will add to that amount also.

3. At around the same time as the R100 programme was starting to award its first contracts to BT (Openreach), the new UK Government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson was proposing an additional £5bn to help the final 20% of hardest to reach premises (mostly rural) gain access to “gigabit-capable” broadband.

The PM’s investment formed part of an overall aim to get every home covered by gigabit connectivity in time for the end of 2025. Arguably the existing £600m investment via R100 is already enough to do the vast majority of the job, although Scotland still seems set to gain a slice of the new £5bn fund.

How much of that £5bn do you think Scotland should receive and, once received, could it be used to replace some of the existing R100 funding sources or be put toward separate complementary projects?

ANSWER:

There is some nuance here – R100 is a superfast programme and its intervention area is comprised of premises currently not receiving superfast. The 20% “Gigabit” intervention will sit on both sides of R100 i.e. addressing premises that are both more and less remote.

We are pleased that the outcomes of the two contracts we have awarded thus far for R100 have primarily been a full fibre deployment – which aligns with both governments’ forward looking policies. This goes way beyond original ambitions. But isn’t able to deliver 100% full fibre and contracts won’t get to all premises. There will be large number of premises that can already access superfast but where there will be no commercial plans for full fibre. That is where new UKG investment will be important.

As the R100 outcome was primarily FTTP, that’s’ job done’ for both Governments’ objectives. As to how much to do the rest? Crudely “as much as it takes”.

The UK government is currently designing the procurement approach and state aid regime which will channel the £5Bn as subsidy into the market. We (Scotland) are inputting into that process with our experiences of reaching 100% and, as you’d expect, designing an optimal scheme for Scotland. That’s not just about commercial approach but also about tactical, potentially demand-led interventions that take over where gap subsidy no longer works.

Please flick over to page 2 for the rest of this interview..

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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.
Leave a Comment
10 Responses
  1. Avatar gary

    Interesting enough read thanks for getting him to contribute.
    The project as ever will always be tainted despite the inevitable self congratulation.

    The flagship Reaching 100% project that didnt, and those it did, behind schedule.

    The worst served Lot with arguably the biggest deployment challenges still without a contract awarded, so highly likely to be the last to complete.

    And ultimately, due to the length of time from Announcement to actually starting a stopgap already eclipsed by the UK wide aim for Gigabit.

    Not that it’ll make any difference but i’m hoping we can eventually judge the reasons for Gigaclears objection ourselves.

  2. Avatar Ogilvie Jackson

    Yes, very interesting read
    However the question everybody wants to know is WHEN??.
    We need the new post BT code checker for R100.to know who is getting what and when.
    This was promised by Scot Gov. Minister Paul Wheelhouse.
    Please try to find out.

    • Avatar gary

      Totally agree on the checker, allegedly they now know who’s in scope and who isn’t.

      Sadly and i can fully understand why, timescales are going to be so hard to pin down and will be subject to many changes i wager as the programme plans and adjusts workflow.

      Unfortunately for those still at the bottom of the connection scale it really does seem that all you ever herar is we’re trying, we’re planning to, then some comming soon , but doesn’t and I know from friends, its not just me that laughs when we see the promises and not just R100.

      It’s a massive amount of work i know, but The Gov and likes of openreach announce grand sounding aims and forcasts but when those dates are 2025 to almost 2030 they’re expecting people to applaud when in reality you are looking at a 10 year wait.

  3. Avatar joe

    “We should point out that broadband is technically devolved to Westminster”

    Mark you might want to remember which way devolution works!

  4. Avatar Brian

    I second the need for the checker to be up and running, to try to bring towards an end the 10 years of uncertainty and misinformation. If accurate information had been available from super fast scotland, it would have been possible to seek alternatives without the coming soon dampener.

  5. Avatar craski

    +1 for a published detailed roll out plan. The Digital Scotland checker has always been completely useless.

  6. Avatar Ogilvie Jackson

    YES, it’s been nearly 6 months since contracts were signed…no excuse, we need to know.
    Chase up OR and R100 team Mark
    Stay safe

  7. Avatar Topher Dawson

    We at Highland Community Broadband would love to see what premises in Wester Ross will and won’t be eligible for vouchers. It’s maddening that the list exists but we can’t see it. Also the criteria for service to qualify for the vouchers.

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