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Angry Highlanders Invite Scottish MSP to Try Broadband in a Cow Field

Monday, March 8th, 2021 (3:00 pm) - Score 4,800

Angry locals in the Moray beauty spot of Finderne have setup an office in a cow field and invited the Scottish Government’s Connectivity Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, to come and try (suffer) working from it for a day. The stunt is designed to reflect frustrations over delays to the new voucher scheme and poor broadband.

Finderne covers a wide geographical area to the south of Forres in Moray and includes the small settlements of Rafford, Easter Lawrenceton, Dunphail, Edinkillie, Logie, Cathay, Altyre, Burgie, Blairs, Blervie, Brodieshill, Relugas, Glenerney and Braemoray.

At one point it was hoped that locals in this rural area might soon gain access to “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) under the Scottish Government’s new £579m Reaching 100% (R100) project, but following lots of delays they’re still awaiting the rollout plan for that (details). In any case it isn’t now expected to complete for 4-5 more years.

As a partial solution to this the SG launched a new voucher scheme for areas not covered by R100 (here), which also included smaller “interim vouchers” – worth up to £400. Crucially, these would only be made available to premises where 30Mbps+ is planned for after the end of 2021 – with an additional £250 for those in the hardest-to-reach areas (i.e. helping to cover for the LOT 1 delays). But locals in Finderne say there have been delays with that too.

Pery Zakeri, Development Manager of the Finderne Development Trust, said:

“Working from a desk in a field in the heart of our rural community will soon let Mr Wheelhouse get a taste of the everyday reality for those trying to run a business or home school kids in this part of the world.

We’ve even seen people forced to leave the area because they can’t continue with university studies while living in their family homes because the connectivity is so bad.

There are days when you’d be more successful getting a usable connection by trying to plug your phone or computer into a turnip, or maybe a passing cow. It’s the same story for remote and rural communities across the north of Scotland.

What we want to show him is that you can have everything you need for a workplace or home office – but in 2021 it’s pretty much worthless without a functioning broadband connection.”

In fairness the relevant R100 LOT 1 contract, which was awarded to BT (Openreach) at the end of last year and will mostly foster the deployment of gigabit-speed FTTP technology, did suffer from an additional year of delays (on top of prior delays) – when compared with LOT 2 and 3. This is because it was held-up by a legal challenge from rival bidder Gigaclear (here).

Nevertheless, it’s easy to forget that the original R100 aspiration was to make superfast broadband available to every premises in Scotland by the end of 2021, which means that one way or another some communities are going to feel let down (those around Finderne are no exception).

Families and businesses covered by the Finderne Development Trust say they’ve faced “years of frustration with internet connection speeds“, worsened by the pressures of the Coronavirus lockdowns. Initially they attempted to pursue a Community Fibre Partnership (CPF) and pinned their hopes on getting fibre for the 498 properties in the area. But those dreams were dashed “when the door was slammed shut” by Openreach in mid-December.

Locals claim the Government has since “fumbled the rollout of interim support vouchers.” Admittedly the £400 vouchers aren’t a total fix and would simply mean offsetting the cost of slightly faster mobile broadband connections, but apparently those vouchers won’t even be made available until delivery of R100 begins later this year, meaning “more agonising delays.”

Pery added:

“Why we are so angry at the moment is that we’ve been in discussions with Mr Wheelhouse, via our local MSP, Richard Lochhead, and among our requests for help and information, we asked if it might be possible to reverse this ridiculous policy.

After waiting months for his response, we finally received what amounted to a patronising lecture about the history of the R100 programme – something we are very aware of having undertaken considerable research into broadband.

And he didn’t respond to us at all on the issue of the interim voucher scheme, which has infuriated everyone. It really was the only point we wanted to hear from him on, as it is the best option to financially help and support people and businesses in the North of Scotland to improve their broadband connection, without affecting their inclusion in the R100 roll out plans.

If Mr Wheelhouse cares to take up our ‘remote working’ challenge for a day, he’ll soon understand the same levels of disappointment that he’s left us feeling in our community and no doubt many similar remote and rural communities across Scotland.”

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) and that’s where R100 came in. Put another way, locals have been let down by both the UK and Scottish Governments.

Lest we forget that the Scottish Government’s Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing (MSP), previously pledged to quit if he failed to deliver on the new £600m R100 project (here). “If I don’t deliver this by 2021, I think it will be time for Fergus Ewing to depart and do something else, and leave the job,” said Fergus.

The £400 interim vouchers often seem like an attempt to get around what Ewing said, but that seems like wishful thinking, unless every eligible property magically takes it up and gets covered by 2021. Meanwhile, there’s going to be a seat waiting in a cow field for the connectivity minister, should he desire such a post. The connectivity might be slow but at least there’s a plentiful supply of milk and social distancing from other people won’t be too difficult.

UPDATE 4:31pm

For those wondering what the CFP problems with Openreach were, we have a bit more detail from the FDT trust document on the matter.

Summary of CFP Issues (FDT Trust)

FDT requested costs from Openreach for a CFP covering the whole of our area. However, on 3rd November, Openreach advised us that a single CFP, for the whole of Finderne, was not an option and that project proposals would have to be based on the physical locations of the telephone exchanges that serve the area. In our case this being:

1. Alves Exchange – for properties in the Burgie area

2. Dunphail Exchange – for properties in the Edinkillie, Dunphail, Relugas, Glenerney and Braemoray areas

3. Forres Exchange – for properties in the Rafford, Easter Lawrenceton, Cathay, Logie, and Altyre areas.

Openreach provided two indicative cost estimates. These estimates outline the likely costs for bringing Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) to Finderne to enable download speeds of 1Gbps.

The first estimate included 159 premises connected to the Dunphail telephone exchange. This amounted to £1,230,454.00 – a cost of £7,738.70 per premise.

The second estimate included 64 premises connected to the Alves exchange. Premises connected to this exchange had a significantly higher estimated cost of £14,913.41, totalling to £954,458.00.

Despite requesting a CFP that included all 498 properties in Finderne, we did not receive an estimated cost for properties serviced by the Forres Exchange. We were told by Openreach that this was because they had lodged an application with the Scottish Government to bring FTTP to the Forres exchange which would cover this area as part of their own commercial rollout and were advised that they were expecting a decision on this application ‘soon’.

FDT did not want to only announce the two estimated costs for Dunphail and Alves as we knew that the community would raise the question of why the Forres Exchange had been missed out.

We again requested costs for a CFP covering the Forres Exchange and whilst we waited for news on this, we focused on exploring all options for reducing the high costs involved as much as possible.

We asked Openreach if self-dig was an option but were simply advised ‘no’ – our project was not eligible for this due to the nature of the area. We have asked this question again, considering our good relationship with local landowners, but are still awaiting any advice.

Openreach suggested that instead, we could consider removing premises from the CFP that contributed greatly to the civil engineering costs of laying the fibre cable and then look at alternative solutions for these properties. We were of course keen to explore all options and so made two requests:

1) that Openreach provide us with a breakdown of the estimated costs so that we could better understand how the figures had been reached and;

2) that Openreach provide us with a copy of the map which plotted every household in Finderne and advised which premises could potentially be removed to achieve smaller costs.

Together, this would have provided the Board with the information required to take a strategic decision about how to proceed. Having pushed Openreach for this information on several occasions we were very disappointed to be supplied with elementary maps that mapped properties in the wrong locations. Some even showing properties mapped on Forres High Street.

We have also been putting efforts into establishing how many premises are eligible to draw down funding from the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) funding.

Having received conflicting information, we wrote to both Openreach and the Scottish Government and have now been advised that any premises currently receiving a 30Mbps service are not eligible for a voucher, regardless of whether that connection is Next Generation Access compliant. We are still trying to establish the exact number of premises that fall into this category, but it will be significant in funding terms.

On 12th November [2020], FDT wrote a formal request to Openreach and the Scottish Government to clarify all of these issues – the fact that we had not received a quote for the Forres exchange, our request for a cost breakdown, the mapping of properties and the challenging timescale of reaching a CFP agreement before the R100 Lot 1 contract was signed at the end of this year.

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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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14 Responses
  1. Avatar Simon says:

    We’ve been approached by a rural community in Scotland within our footprint asking us to deliver a fibre solution for them because they’re fed up of waiting for Openreach. Our funding application under the GBVS was refused because they fall under R100, even though the R100 checker says they won’t get a solution until after 2021. So all we can do is go back to them and say “Sorry, no additional funding available for fibre, you’ll have to wait at least another year until Openreach finally deliver…”

    1. Avatar Oggy says:

      Who is “we’ve”?

  2. Avatar Mr Sceptic says:

    We had some neighbours try to get the £400 voucher to get access to our local 4g mast but there are very few properties getting 30mb+ so they cant have that funding (mast only had band 20). We had people within 1 mile of the mast being ‘offered’ an antennae installation when they had LoS

    TBH this interim voucher scheme is similar to the previous better broadband scheme which doesnt really give any benefit to anyone except the satellite broadband providers. It’s always cheaper to organise it yourself

  3. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

    Openreach mapping errors seem to be very common, my own small CFP scheme for 12 premises was delayed for many months while I went back and forth with them trying to get errors corrected and hence a valid quotation.

    Draw your own conclusions but my mother would have called them a shambles!

    1. Avatar Fastman says:

      CFP is where a community asks openreach for a specific group of premises that it has already had discussion with its community, whot what its community is and gets a price for that scenario (the above sounds like a procurement shopping list in in this case please quote me for anything i like , and tell me how much it all costs so i can choose what bits i want / dont want The fact that this area was under consideration by R100 meant that that would have taken precedent before anything else.

    2. Avatar Fastman says:

      Guy interesting view – these schemes are hard and complicated and challenging and require significant engineering infrastucture in often complex and challenging areas as you well know

      if was easy you would have been covered by CDS originally

    3. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

      @ Fastman

      CDS promised us ‘Superfast’ under Phase 1, I still have the document. When that didn’t happen they promised again under Phase 2, they even copied my local MP into the promise, that didn’t happen either.

      At least OR did sort it out eventually, CDS didn’t.

  4. Avatar David Currie says:

    Is this more money the SNP has received from Westminster that they are holding onto incase they get their independence and they can use to prop up their bad debt.

    1. Avatar Martin says:

      Who told you to say that ?

      As for holding onto money – Scottish Govt. is giving money to councils to freeze the council tax. Are the folks in England looking forward to paying more council tax?

  5. Avatar JP says:

    I thought the whole area lacked something then but then I checked and see 80mbps fibre available from Openreach…

    I would love to know exactly the size of the population that’s going without here please.

  6. Avatar Simon says:

    I live in Forres near Mundole. The guaranteed minimum speed I get is 0.4 MBPs. I seldom see 1 MBPs. I applied to BT for fibre under the grant scheme with a quote of in excess of £100k being received from them but likely to be more once the cost was refined. Did I wish to proceed with the quote I was asked and they were surprised when I said no. Go to Inverness where they already had fast broadband and they are digging up the streets installing faster broadband. I would have hoped that smaller areas would be getting some assistance with this as like many I work from home and with my son at home too we can’t even be on line at the same time, our phones can’t be on either as there isn’t any capacity. It’s actually feels slower than our dial up used to be. Would welcome some action on these more rural areas. Sad thing is I can get 4G in the local woods and fields but not my home but I am unwilling to pay even more for satellite broadband especially as the signal can drop out and it is expensive.

    1. Avatar Martin says:

      Have you checked the “bell wire” on your master socket?
      There was also an add-on plate that was sold that allegedly helped.

      That has been reported to speed things up.

  7. Avatar NW London Person says:

    Scottish Government need to get broadband moooooving for the Highlands.

    I’ll get my coat.

  8. Avatar yeehaa says:

    Having had personal experience of dealing with Paul Wheelhouse, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    All I’ll say about this SNP MSP is that he would be no great loss to the Scottish Parliament, if he were to lose his seat at the upcoming election.

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