The powers-that-be do not expect an ordinary rural community to roll up their sleeves and build state of the art fibre networks in parts of the UK denounced as totally uneconomic.

Trefor.net is pleased to present the following “Broadband Week” post from B4RN Chief Executive Barry Forde. Barry is a networking expert with many years experience of designing, building and operating high performance networks, and apart from providing the technical input for B4RN he also acts as a consultant to a number of local authorities establishing local high speed broadband plans.

In mediaeval times if a woman acted oddly she ran the risk of being denounced as a witch. To test the veracity of such an accusation, a person so accused would be strapped onto a ducking stool and then immersed in the village pond. Then, after an arbitrary time, the woman would be brought up and examined. Continued life served as proof that she was a witch, resulting in a subsequent burning at the stake, whereas if the woman was dead then clearly she was innocent and everyone expressed their regrets. The point I’m making is that acting oddly was and still is a pretty dodgy thing to do if you want to enjoy a long and happy life.

B4RN is clearly acting oddly, as the powers-that-be do not expect an ordinary rural community to roll up their sleeves and build state of the art fibre networks in parts of the country denounced as totally uneconomic by those who know better. If the megalithic BT says it’s not doable then that, of course, is the definitive answer. Must be some sort of witchcraft if B4RN says it can do it, right? Bring out the ducking stool (the modern equivalent being the Open Market Review, combined with State aid rules)!

No one disagrees with the principle that in a modern society we should avoid situations where some part of the population is left disadvantaged in relation to others. So if we as a nation need Next Generation Broadband (NGB), loosely defined as >24Mbs by BDUK or >30Mbs by the EU, then it should ideally be available to all. The commercial operators are going to roll NGB out to about 60% of the population using their own money, so what’s to be done about the rest? And, no, the answer is not to make them move into the cities and then turn the countryside into a Disney theme park.

B4RN

DCMS got the treasury to put up £520M of public funds for use in subsidising NGB build-out in the more difficult areas, the idea being to push NGB availability out to ~90% of the population. (I’d love to know whether there was some mathematical basis for that amount, or whether someone just stuck a finger in the air to test the wind.) The money was allocated on a formula basis to Local Authorities, each of which had to then come up with a local broadband plan, the hope being that they would also add additional funds from their own resources and also bulk things up with ERDF and similar initiatives. It worked, and I understand the total pot has climbed to around £1.2B, which is serious money. It was also hoped that allowing each LA to do its own thing would unleash competition and bring in new operators clearly thirsting for the chance to get stuck in!

I won’t rehash the long and bitter saga of how this BDUK phase 1 project has gone, but suffice it to say no one — apart from BDUK/DCMS and their respective Ministers and BT (of course) — is happy with things. The lack of competition in awarding contracts by Local Authorities (they all went to BT, the national monopoly telco) was roundly condemned by the NAO and PAC, and the fog of obfuscation laid down by the Local Authorities in making clear which post codes were in, which were out, and what speeds were to be delivered to each, is a plot worthy of “Yes Minister”. Small community projects like B4RN were totally frozen out of this by a whole series of rules that made it impossible for us to bid for the Local Authority contracts.

The powers-that-be, however, clearly feel happy with events and have decided to put another £250M of public money into the pot to increase the NGB coverage to 95% or better. Is there a basis for that new figure, or is it another finger in the air exercise? Having learnt nothing from the first round they seem intent on repeating the same model with formula funding for the Local Authorities, who will then award contracts as they see fit. The suspicion is that most will simply extend the phase 1 contracts with BT but, fingers crossed, some might take the opportunity to run genuine tenders which could open things up for community groups. First, though, each authority needs to run an Open Market Review to establish what work is going to be done by the commercial operators in the coming three years.

So let’s look at how all of this works from B4RN’s point of view. As a network operator building a network we have been asked to respond to Lancashire’s OMR with details of what our plans are, and as I see it we have three options, none of which appeals to me:

  1. Ignore the OMR and don’t respond. If we do this then our Local Authority can ignore us and assume that any areas not covered in phase 1 is “White” (i.e., no existing operator), and therefore eligible for subsidies from the phase 2 kitty. They could choose to simply add these areas to the existing phase 1 contract or they could go out to tender for them, in which case B4RN could respond to the tender.
  2. Respond to the OMR and list our targeted areas but say that these plans involve us bidding for public funds. The Local Authority is then perfectly free to ignore our plans as they involve public money and the OMR rules says these plans can be ignored, so the area stays White and we revert to 1 above.
  3. Respond to the OMR saying that our target area is going to be built come hell or high water, and we will find some way of building out to all 3500 properties in our patch. If we do this then the State Aid rules say we cannot bid for any public funds as the market is going to deliver ,and our area is now grey and not eligible for grants. In theory, this should also prevent LCC from funding BT to build out in those post codes too. As the phase 1 postcodes have not been disclosed by LCC, however, they can at any time state that a specific patch is being done via phase 1 funding, not phase 2, and go ahead. I cannot see any way to stop this from happening.

Options 1 and 2 mean that it is very unlikely we would get any funding via the phase 2 project, as our Local Authority has a close working relationship with BT and I’d be utterly astonished if they allowed us a sniff at the money. The probability is that they would extend the phase 1 contract with BT or, if not, do a new procurement structured to keep B4RN out. Option 3 means we are locked out of any funding anyway, and still will not have protected ourselves from a BT overbuild. But what we have done is committed the rural community to find 100% of the money and effort needed to build out the network. It becomes simply a matter for the Local Authority and BT to cherry-pick anything that looks remotely attractive to them, claiming it was in the phase 1 plan, and leave B4RN with the extortionately expensive and difficult bits.

So do we drown or do we burn? No response means no money, a response means no money and making a really serious commitment on behalf of the community and there is no safety net. The whole purpose of B4RN is to support the rural community. We really don’t want to get into a situation where we are making commitments on their behalf without prior agreement, and a 28-day window to respond to an OMR is nowhere near enough time to consult. From a community point of view, it seems the best way would be to not respond and to let the Local Authority fund BT to go out as far as it can, and then B4RN simply overbuild BT as and when community effort and funds permit. Given the extraordinarily high take up rates and support we get from our community we have no worries about competing with a subsidised BT, but it does stick in the craw seeing them get state aid support amounting to 80% or more of their costs whilst we get nothing. Particularly when ours is a full blown FTTH project that offers much better service and is very much future-proofed.

What I would really love to know is how on earth such a ridiculous situation has arisen. There are a number of community groups that are ready, willing and able to emulate the B4RN project. The government makes plenty of noise about localism and Big Society in action, but when such a wonderful example as rural broadband emerges they instantly kill it with bureaucracy and a morass of mindless rules. Why can a community not make a start on their project and look to bid for state funds to top it up? The rules say if we start something then it immediately becomes sterilised for any support. Do they really think it’s better for people to do nothing at all, except wait in the vain hope that big government will eventually solve things? Surely initiative should be rewarded, not penalised.

So back to the ducking stool. Do we practice holding our breath in the bath, have a chat with Jenson Button regarding borrowing some F1 flameproof long johns, or try and borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility clock so we can work our magic unseen by the Death Eaters in Whitehall/Local Authority/BT?

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