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Parliament to Debate B4RN’s Gigabit Voucher Scheme Concerns UPDATE3

Tuesday, September 21st, 2021 (12:01 am) - Score 1,800
B4RK Kent Build

Last month we reported that the UK Government’s £5bn Project Gigabit programme was threatening to disrupt B4RN’s rollout of a new Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network in rural parts of Cumbria and Northumberland. The good news is that Tim Farron, Lib Dem MP, has secured a parliamentary debate on the issue.

Like many ISPs, B4RN has recently been busy harnessing millions of pounds worth of gigabit vouchers and community investor loans, which has enabled them to build out faster. But last month the registered Community Benefit Society ISP warned (here) that many projects in Cumbria and Northumberland (i.e. those that are both in-build or planned for the near future) had been put at risk as a result of Project Gigabit’s move to pause the voucher scheme in those two regions on 24th September 2021.

Previously, the operator had been assured that communities where B4RN planned to build in the next 5-years would be marked as “Conditional White” and will thus be available for them and other ISPs to build through voucher funded projects, until the Regional Suppliers have completed build in uncontested areas – ensuring pace of build is optimised across the region.

The problem, claimed B4RN, is that a large proportion of their planned 5-year build programme was later found to have been “included in the initial procurement” for regional suppliers under Project Gigabit, including “many areas where B4RN is already actively engaged with communities and where planning for a voucher funded build is well underway.”

As a result, B4RN has been forced to scramble and is calling on many planned volunteer-led communities to “get as much sign up as possible by 10th September,” which should allow enough time to submit the vouchers before the deadline.

In response, the government (DCMS) said they were still “reviewing the plans of B4RN and other suppliers to determine which premises to target,” before adding that “no eligible home or business is going to miss out on funding.” In fairness, DCMS has to protect taxpayer’s money, not least by avoiding duplication of the rollout. As such, they may deem it necessary to temporarily halt vouchers in some areas to help build up a stable picture.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, said (The Mail):

“I’m deeply frustrated by the Government’s completely cloth eared response to our pleas to change the procurement process for Project Gigabit so B4RN can continue to deliver hyperfast broadband to our local rural communities.

As a result many communities who were on the verge of being connected by B4RN will rightly feel like they’ve had the rug pulled from underneath them.”

Michael Lee, B4RN’s CEO, said:

“Instead of helping us to continue, or even accelerate, this work, the Project Gigabit procurement process, as it currently stands, will severely disrupt our build plans and in many cases force us to put community projects on hold, in some cases indefinitely.”

The debate itself – Project Gigabit and community-led internet service providers – is due to take place at 11am today in the Westminster Hall and will only last for 30 minutes (not much time for a complex issue). We’ll be keeping a close eye on this, although such debates often merely serve to help raise the profile of such cases, but it remains to be seen whether there will be a positive outcome.

UPDATE 8:50am

We’ve had a comment from DCMS.

A DCMS Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“We have listened to people’s concerns and are working closely with B4RN and other suppliers to make vouchers available for projects we think will result in more premises being connected sooner.

But we have a legal duty to ensure value for money for taxpayers and vouchers will only be available where we have evidence a supplier has made sufficient progress and is actively engaged with the community.

No eligible home or business will miss out on funding, through either a voucher or Project Gigabit contract, to get a gigabit connection as quickly as possible.”

We’ll keep an eye on today’s debate, but at 30 minutes long there’s only time for a few MPs to get their remarks in, and we suspect that the Government’s comment in that debate will tow the same line as the one directly above.

UPDATE 4:11pm

The MP for Hornchurch and Upminster, Julia Lopez, who was last week appointed as the Minister of State for DCMS, gave an interesting comment during today’s debate that suggested the Government were still open to further discussion on the subject.

Julia Lopez said:

“While residents and businesses in Cumbria will be the first to benefit from our programme, it means the county is also at the forefront of our learning and understanding. Far from being cloth-eared, as I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has stated in his local paper, I want to reassure him that we are listening hard to people’s concerns and we continue to be open minded about the best approach. I hope this debate is the opening of that conversation, certainly with me in my new role.

My officials have met B4RN several times and examined each project it has put forward in a lot of detail. I am pleased that the chief executive is here today and, in fact, I understand that my officials are going to meet him later today. Not only that; my excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), visited Cumbria last month and met communities in the midst of the broadband build. He also met B4RN and listened to the concerns, and I shall be happy to keep that conversation going.

I cannot stress enough how much the Department admires and applauds B4RN in its unique community-minded approach. As a network provider, it is almost unique in the UK. We do not want to dampen that enthusiasm or that business model. I have come from a position in the Cabinet Office where we were looking at how to transform the UK’s procurement regime now that we have left the European Union. One of our key drivers is looking to get more social value into the money the Government spend, as well as diversifying supply chains and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to get involved. I certainly do not want to crowd people out.

Residents involved in every one of B4RN’s projects tirelessly work to drum up support and interest and to persuade landowners to grant permissions to cross their land and so on. That is seriously impressive community work. I welcome that the vouchers have been used to provide coverage to 3,500 premises in Cumbria. I hope that that number will continue to grow, but our task—let us be honest here—is to help in the region of 60,000 premises, so the procurement approach has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to the Project Gigabit programme.”

In response, Tim Farron asked if Lopez “recognise[d] that as things stand, unless she defers the deadline for the voucher scheme on Friday, the communities that I have listed, which I got from B4RN, will be in limbo at the very least? While they could have looked forward to a connection very quickly, over the next year or so, they will now be at best put back several years.”

Lopez responded to say that she wanted to see what happened in today’s meeting with B4RN’s CEO, Michael Lee, before talking about the “best approach going forward.”

UPDATE 23rd Sept 2021

The CEO of B4RN, Michael Lee, has suggested that a solution may have been found: “Following the debate, I had a really constructive discussion with officials from DCMS. I am now very hopeful that we are a few weeks away from a solution which will allow us to continue to deliver future-proof fibre optic infrastructure to as many communities as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Hopefully that solution, should it actually surface, will be one that benefits other AltNets in the same sort of position and not only B4RN.

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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
13 Responses
  1. A_Builder says:

    Absolutely crazy.

    It isn’t like there is a queue of providers covering B4RN’s areas. They are usually very remote.

    Even if funding is put in place, for others, B4RN would have got the job done: probably sooner.

  2. chris conder says:

    So for the third time we do battle with a monopoly. The first was in 1984, when government decided to open up the fibre market. We ended up with altnets going bust and ADSL. The second was in 2010, when we were assured Openreach would get fibre to the people and the funding made available to altnets was syphoned into openreach and we got FTTC. This is the third battle, vouchers were made available for altnets to lay fibre, and now they are being removed and once again carte blanche given to openreach. Do the civil servants never learn? History is repeating itself. If it wasn’t for Virgin taking over telewest we’d all still be on dial up. Competition is what drives progress.

    1. The Facts says:

      What monopoly? Of what?

    2. NGA for all says:

      In August BT confirmed £558m in ‘untriggered’ clawback, while DCMS confirmed they ‘cannot’ spend this money, even though BT have capitalised it, thus charging customers for upgrades not delivered.

      If the money owed was to be used in completing rural it would squeeze BARN.

      The over focus on FTTC, particularly FTTC Cure will have a long lasting negative effect on rural and Openreach.

      A selective use of vouchers and completion of rural using the monies owed is likely to have a better chance of success than a business case to overbuild already subsidised 30-80Mps.

      The £5bn is more £1.1bn where the business case may not yet be approved.

    3. New_Londoner says:

      Did B4RN forget to respond to an OMR again?

    4. FibreFred says:

      It’s a government scheme not a BT scheme.

      But hey any opportunity to sling mud.

  3. Buggerlugz says:

    Something makes me think the government wants a monopoly….wonder why that could be?

  4. Peter says:

    It reminds me of the conservatives 2015 ransacking of green policy and subsidies. Policies before then helped to drive Britain towards sustainable energy. The work done helped propel UK green energy to the top but since 2018 it’s started going into reverse and now concerned people supporting green energy are portrayed as lunatics by the mainstream media.

  5. Mark says:

    This is affecting all suppliers who are working with rural communities. B4RN is just one of the suppliers being affected, DCMS are putting projects at risk. With 4 days to go, they tell everyone about the priority voucher areas but provide no insight into what areas these are. Thousands of pounds and hours have been worked on helping make these projects a success and are now at risk of failing with loss of investments to date because they can’t decide on how the programme will work with project gigabit. It has been in discussion since Feb 2021 at the impact it would have but nothing gets done until 4 days before the scheme closes in the North East

  6. The Facts says:

    I posted a link to the debate but it has not appeared. Says duplicate if I try again.

    https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/c4ecaca5-4046-4712-a1ec-7796ca823e8b

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      If you just make a post that contains only a link, then the system will assume you’re spamming and automatically filter it out. If you then try to re-post the same link, which has already been flagged as suspicious, then it’ll catch that too until I’ve had a chance to do a manual approval (I usually only do that once a day).

  7. Rob says:

    Much as I love B4RN, think they are the best bet for much of Cumbria and hope they succeed in getting the 24th deadline and scheme closure fiasco resolved, private deals between one provider and DCMS are not the way to do this.

    How many other providers are either affected or going to be affected by this issue? Are they all going to get 11th hour meetings and implementation changes, and how many more times are we going to do flip-flopping between enabling a vibrant, innovative market in the last mile and “lets just chuck loads of money at Openreach to see how badly they can spend it (like last time)”.

    1. Spyder Lodge says:

      Hopefully it will be an industry wide solution. There are a lot of local fibre companies with modest ambitions to serve their local communities. They are a refreshing change from the larger fibre to the PowerPoint approach and more likely to build sustainable businesses rather than focusing on the ‘Exit’ for their investors.

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