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Concerns Grow Over Delays to Devon and Somerset Broadband

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020 (9:14 am) - Score 1,560
connecting devon and somerset uk logo map 2016

The troubled Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) project faced heavy criticism yesterday after UK Government MPs in the House of Commons highlighted on-going delays in awarding the new Phase 2 rollout contract(s), which aim to extend “superfast broadband” into more rural areas. But Christmas may bring a resolution.

At present the existing CDS scheme has already helped 300,000 extra homes and businesses gain access to “superfast broadband” (24-30Mbps+) connectivity and take-up in those areas has reached 65%+. The vast majority of this was delivered via BT’s (Openreach) earlier (Phase 1) state aid funded contracts using FTTC and a little FTTP (plus a new extension), while a fixed wireless access network (FWA) from Airband is also providing access to around 16,000 premises.

NOTE: Total “superfast” coverage across the Devon and Somerset area, including a majority of commercial build, is around 90% (c.1 million premises). Below the UK’s figure of 96%+.

On top of that CDS, supported by £38m of public funding, has been busy hunting for suppliers to deliver their Phase 2 scheme. But this future project follows the failure of their earlier Phase 2 contract with Gigaclear (here), which they scrapped last year over a lack of progress, and that in turn also followed an earlier failure to reach a Phase 2 deal with BT back in 2015 (arguably CDS wanted more than BT seemed able to deliver within the tight time-scale).

Suffice to say that CDS has had more than a few major stumbles over the years with their Phase 2 plans, while last year’s Open Mark Review (OMR) identified around 115,000 premises that still can’t access superfast or won’t be able to get superfast speeds for years. Local MPs are now awaiting news on the latest contract award for Phase 2 and this was the subject of yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, which was tabled by Neil Parish MP.

Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said:

“In December 2019, after cancelling the Gigaclear contracts, CDS launched another tendering process to award the phase 2 contracts. The announcement was meant to be made last month, but we are still waiting for it—all the time, there are delays. Instead of blaming other people for their failures, we need full transparency from those at Connecting Devon and Somerset, and we need the Minister to whip them into shape.

Throughout the process, there has been great concern about value for money. I am glad that we have a responsible local council in Devon that always thinks carefully about taxpayers’ money, but because of the delays over the last eight years, constituents have had no option but to pay for alternatives. Business and residents have had to pay Openreach themselves to move into the 21st century, forming community fibre partnerships. I pay great tribute to those who have done so and to the Government for putting forward the voucher system.

We have had other entrants into the market, such as Jurassic Fibre, which has connected a lot in Honiton and Axminster and has done a good job. Great companies such as Jurassic Fibre are trying to connect people with faster broadband because the local government scheme is failing to act quickly enough. Of course, as we connect all those industrial states and take out the bigger sections, we are also making it more expensive to deliver the whole project. Every year, as we delay, it basically gets more expensive.

Even if CDS did manage to announce new phase 2 contracts this side of Christmas, we have already been told that there is a six-month implementation period. How much longer an implementation period do we need, Minister? We have had eight years already! Then, the contracts will take at least four years to complete, taking us to 2024. Is that acceptable, Minister? Was the whole point of cancelling the Gigaclear contracts not that December 2020 was too late? Now we are talking about 2024.

Surely, the system is far too bureaucratic and slow.”

Others MPs echoed those concerns, while Simon Jupp MP highlighted how Neil Parish himself was often missed on weekly calls among Devon MPs “because his internet falls down,” which helps to highlight how problems with broadband connectivity can just as easily affect Government ministers as they can ordinary people.

In response the UK Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Matt Warman, issued an apology and confirmed that the Government had made an appointment to CDS’s board, which he hoped would be seen as a “signal of how closely and intensively we have worked with CDS to get these forthcoming procurements to a much better place.”

Matt Warman MP said:

“I completely understand why the debacle of the 13% of houses that Connecting Devon and Somerset has not managed to get connected is important to all hon. Members present. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) generously pointed out, 87% of the programme has been delivered, but the fact remains that not far off 50,000 premises will be, at worst, nearly five years late.

For what it is worth, I am sorry. It is important that, whether we blame Carillion for letting down Gigaclear, or Gigaclear for overpromising, the Government are sorry that we are in this position. That is an important starting point.”

Warman then confirmed that Phase 2 will divide 50,000 premises into 6 lots to cover all parts of the region not currently addressed by the live Airband contract (total completion for this contract seems likely to be c.2025). “The reason for taking that approach is to maximise competition, speed, and speed of roll-out wherever we possibly can,” said the Minister for Digital, before reminding Neil Parish that “quite a lot has happened this year that we were not expecting” (e.g. COVID-19).

The good news is that Warman, while referencing the future contract award, said his “expectation” was “they will be done by Christmas” (the current state aid rules run out this month, so they’ll have to get it done or risk another huge delay). “The overall delivery, in stages between 2021 and 2024, and 2024 and 2025, is the right approach but it needs to be as transparent as possible, and should go as fast as possible. It should be communicated as quickly as possible,” added Warman.

Meamwhile Neil and a number of other MPs also criticised the Government’s latest move to water-down their gigabit-broadband programme (i.e. adjusting the unrealistic time-scale to reality), which previously aimed to ensure that “every home” could access a 1Gbps capable connection by the end of 2025 but now expects a “minimum” of 85% coverage by that date (here) and has only released £1.2bn of its £5bn budget.

Neil Parish MP added:

“I understand that we have set £5 billion of funding to deliver broadband to the final 20% of properties that will not be reached by the commercial networks, but in the 2020 spending review last week the Chancellor allocated just £1.2 billion of that funding for the years 2020 to 2025.

Will the Minister please explain why that funding seems to have been cut? Will it be replaced? The Government have also downgraded their ambitions in the national infrastructure strategy to 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, instead of 100%. Again, why has that happened?”

In response, Warman said he was “absolutely clear” that this remains a £5 billion programme with a “100% target,” although the “judgement of industry and the Government is that the initial phasing of the spending reflects the maximum that can be delivered in the period up to 2025, but we will continue to work with industry so that if we can go any faster at all, then we will. If we can exceed that 85%, then we will. It is not an 85% maximum — it is a 100% ambition and we will go as far and as fast as we can.”

We strongly suspect that the final Phase 2 contract award may be split between a batch of smaller suppliers, although there’s still the possibility that BT and Gigaclear might end up being involved in the final award, but such an outcome would attract some embarrassment for CDS, given the history of Phase 2. Local ISPs Airband, Jurassic Fibre, Truespeed and others are also logical candidates for the various LOTS.

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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.
Leave a Comment
10 Responses
  1. Guy Cashmore says:

    A further investigation is required into what has gone wrong in the CDS area that wasn’t part of the failed Gigaclear contract. The Phase 2 Lot 4 area (West Devon) was won by Airband and is apparently complete. The area covered is almost exactly the same geographically as the constituency of Torridge and West Devon (if you overlay the two maps they are almost identical). Despite being apparently complete, Superfast coverage is still only 88%, actually worse than the Devon & Somerset average where most Phase 2 work hasn’t begun.


  2. Michael V says:

    It’s still amusing how we refer to 24mbps & above as Superfast!
    It should only be used on speeds that 100 down, 20 up.
    But ASA & Ofcom don’t seem bothered!

    1. Guy Cashmore says:

      I agree, we also need common terms to describe those that are still on long line ADSL, perhaps Slow and Superslow would do?

    2. A_Builder says:


    3. Packet Switched says:

      Barely Functional?
      Upload Nugatory – only practicable for terse telegraphese.

  3. Steve Pettifer says:

    Ironically, in my bit of East Devon we will shortly have the choice of Jurassic or Gigaclear as after the contract was canned they took back in hand the work they’d already done and are now completing it as a commercial rollout. I fully intend to go with Gigaclear simply because thy offer symmetric speeds, unlike Jurassic, and work out a bit cheaper too, although Jurassic’s rolling monthly contract with no long term commitments is a really good idea and more providers should take note. If the speeds between the two were the same I’d probably take Jurassic even if slightly more expensive as there’s nothing more annoying than being tied in for long periods. As it is I will have to buy my way out of a Sky contract to switch to FTTP.

    1. Andy says:

      Keep an eye on what you’re being charged then as true FTTP isn’t fully symmetrical. To be so would defeat the object.

    2. Jonathan says:

      What cobblers FTTP can be symmetric or can be asymmetric, all depends on the technology deployed.

    3. The Facts says:

      @J – why did the speed test done by Barry Forde of B4RN show higher download on a 10G connection?

    4. A_Builder says:

      If FTTP is PtP (point to point) then it shouldn’t matter.

      If FTTP is GPON based it *may* matter but that depends on the type of GPON used.

      The reality is that connections aggregate somewhere or other and that is often where the limits are actually imposed. It will be interesting to see how networks handle caching for downloads of major games releases that are huge when 1G connections are widespread.

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