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Solution Found to Tackle UK Gigabit Voucher Concerns by AltNets

Friday, September 24th, 2021 (2:08 pm) - Score 2,232

The CEO of alternative full fibre broadband ISP B4RN, Michael Lee, has revealed that the UK Government (DCMS / Building Digital UK) are proposing “Voucher Priority Areas” as a semi-solution to the disruption caused by their new £5bn Project Gigabit programme in rural parts of Cumbria and Northumberland.

As previously reported (here and here), B4RN, much like other alternative network (AltNet) providers, are currently harnessing millions of pounds worth of gigabit vouchers and community investor loans to help them build out their own Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network in remote rural communities.

NOTE: Vouchers and Project Gigabit contracts are two separate state aid supported programmes, albeit with the same goal of improving rural broadband coverage.

However, the provider recently warned that many of their 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 (this process was due to begin today). The impact was also felt by other AltNets.

Previously, B4RN said they had been assured that communities where they planned to build – using vouchers – in the next 5-years were to be marked as “Conditional White.” This meant they would have been available for them to build, until the Regional Suppliers under BDUK’s gap-funded contracts have completed build in uncontested areas – ensuring pace of build is optimised across the region.

Sadly, B4RN recently found that a large proportion of their planned 5-year build programme was to be “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.” Needless to say, they weren’t too happy about that.

On the flip side, DCMS has a duty to protect taxpayer’s money, not least by avoiding duplication of the rollout and public investment, which sometimes makes it necessary to temporarily halt vouchers in some areas to help build up a stable picture of coverage and eligibility. The good news is that, following a related debate in parliament on Monday, a partial solution may have been found.

Michael Lee, B4RN CEO, said:

“Today DCMS announced that they will be identifying ‘Voucher Priority Areas’ within the procurement scope of Project Gigabit. Within these areas, voucher applications will remain open during the Project Gigabit procurement process. This is an important change which should go a significant way to mitigating the impact of the 24th September deadline and enable far greater continuity of delivery across B4RN projects.

We will be working hard with DCMS over the next few weeks to identify which B4RN communities can be included in ‘Voucher Priority Areas’. Once we have a clear picture across all of our affected projects I will write to each project individually.

I have no doubt that this positive change is a direct result of the vocal and heartfelt support for B4RN that has come from all of our communities over the last few months – thank you.”

A spokesperson for DCMS told ISPreview.co.uk this week: “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 … No eligible home or business will miss out on funding, through either a voucher or Project Gigabit contract.

Overall this sounds like a positive outcome, even though it did take a very public campaign, and the intervention of several MPs, before a solution was finally proposed. Hopefully the same method will be used in other parts of the country, and with other AltNets, where such situations arise in the future.

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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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13 Responses
  1. NGA for all says:

    The Boris Broadband promise of ‘gigabit’ is one giant re-subsidising of what has already been subsidised so the notion of protecting taxpayer money or duplication of effort is a joke.

    Boris Broadband is being conducted at the expense of completing the very rural upgrades which could use the £558m of untriggered gainshare in BT’s accounts.

    There has been no ‘true-up’ on the existing works. This should be done and published to inform the next steps.

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Honestly, who believes Boris’s promises these days?

  2. Peter S says:

    Great – I hope BDUK will now be able to concentrate their efforts on finally fixing the issues that are preventing new local authorities joining the top up voucher scheme.

  3. A_Builder says:

    I hope this works.

    Let us not forget that a lot of this work is being done in areas that VM (certainly) and OR (probably) would not look at.

    OK B4RN is a special case but a lot of the smaller ISP’s are also doing worthy work as what they are doing socially valuable work and TBH I think OR would rather like them to take the strain on the difficult locations as much as possible so that OR can concentrate it resources on getting to 100% in Cities and Towns so that DSLAM switch off can happen.

    1. chris conder says:

      OR are not supposed to be funded for cities. “NOTE: Up to 80% of gigabit coverage is expected to be delivered by commercial projects, thus public funding is focused on helping the final 20% of premises (i.e. rural and sub-urban areas – c.5-6 million premises, which the market finds too expensive).” And if OR concentrate on towns and cities they have no need of funding, ergo the funding should all go to altnets. £5billion is a lot of money. Only £210 million is in the voucher scheme, and that is what OR are trying to stop. Letting BT OR have all the funding is going to stop competition and create an even stronger monopoly. for years the only competition has been Virgin. And let us remember, but for virgin we’d all still be on dial up. I don’t think BDUK should worry about having two providers in an area. And once vouchers are issued to an altnet BT OR can only overbuild with their own money. Competition is king.

  4. chris conder says:

    wow. Power to the People. Well done to Tim Farron and the other MPs for listening and JFDI for the Altnets.

  5. lolfibre says:

    R100 has similarly let OR stomp on many projects, including ones BDUK has sat on since January until OR claimed them, with a vague promise to build in the next 5 years projects that altnets were going to complete this year. Some not very pleased communities.

    There should be a simple check, who promises to build it this year, you get the money, if you don’t you don’t get any more projects.

    1. chris conder says:

      lolfibre,iIt really is time for the communities to stand up and fight. This is the third time funding for the rurals has been diverted to openreach who do not deliver. In England we had project access in 2003. This was used to ‘enable exchanges’, then we had ‘digital britain’ in 2010, this was taken again by openreach for their fake fibre fttc cabinets. It is up to us, the people, to stop civil servants being conned again. Lobby your MP, or go to the meeja.

    2. FibreFred says:

      “Who do not deliver”

      Despite rolling out more fttp than anyone in the UK.

    3. Gadget says:

      @Lol – R100 coverage was specified by Scottish Government, OR (and other bidders and potential bidders) simply responded to what was asked – so if there is a complaint to be made about nascent alt-net schemes being stifled it should be directed to Scot Gov.
      As for timescales large delays were a direct fault of challenges made by others to the contract award, and I’m assuming you’ll be the first in the queue to hiring a cable-laying ship and someone to calm the weather to enable deployment.
      @Chris C – assume the same ire is to be directed at CDS and other contractors for not delivering, although FibreFred has rightly commented on your Openreach delivery assertion.

  6. chris conder says:

    Fibre Fred, I see rolls of bt fibre on poles all over the place, not coupled up to anything. But homes in those areas are classed as ‘passed’. as in, passed on the way to a mast and funded by the people’s taxes. If a massive company like BT can’t get fibre into homes then it is a bad job. I would expect them to have many urban homes connected, but they have not delivered it to the rural areas they took funding for. Altnets seem to do it better.

    1. FibreFred says:

      That is how the rollout is done. The fibre to the pole and then connect to the backhaul.

      If you really think BT just stick a but of fibre on a pole and have no plans to connect it then…

      Also you don’t know those properties are classed as passed, there’s no website showing “passed”.

      You can order it or you can’t.

  7. AbuHisham says:

    When I first reported the presence of Fibre on poles running thru our village I could not believe our County’s explanation so I set it into a sketch from “Yes, Minister”

    Scene: The Secretary of State’s office for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport
    Knock knock.
    Come in!
    Oh good morning minister
    Good morning JD (local MP) how are you ?
    Very well thank you minister I’ve had an enquiry from one of my constituents
    Well minister it seems my constituent is not getting the broadband speed he needs
    What is his speed limit?
    I think it’s about 60 mph minister
    No his broadband speed
    Oh he tells me it’s less than 50 MBS
    Then he can’t have fibre broadband FTTP to his home
    Oh why is that minister?
    Because he’s already got superfast broadband
    But he needs about 300MBS minister
    His neighbour tells him he only has 10 MBS
    Then his neighbour can have fibre broadband to the home
    But his neighbour is happy with 10 MBS, he doesn’t need FTTP
    Sorry those are the rules
    So you are saying minister that if he has superfast broadband he can’t get FTTP but if he doesn’t have superfast broadband he can get FTTP?
    Tea minister?
    Oh yes please milk and sugar
    Milk and sugar, minister?
    Yes please
    Sorry minister milk or sugar
    Milk or sugar?
    Yes Minister new rules, post pandemic
    Any cake?
    Yes please
    Sorry minister you can’t have your cake and eat it
    Minister exiting
    Ha! just like your constituent, eh JD?

    And now it’s true! residents furthest away from the DSLAM can apply to BT/EE for speeds upto 900mb.
    Residents below them can’t, even though the fibre cable literaly passes in front of their eyes!

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