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Cheltenham residents facing £9,000 bill for superfast broadband upgrade

Friday, March 20th 2015 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Residents of a Cheltenham housing estate must raise £9,000 if they are to have access to superfast broadband.

Around 200 homes in the Chargrove Lane area are unable to access higher speeds because BT has decided it is not commercially viable to upgrade their local cabinet.

Some of the homes – a mix of new-builds and older houses – are served by Virgin Media but many are struggling with speeds of less than the government’s aim for universal coverage, 2Mbps.

“A lot of people are getting about 0.5Mbps,” said Clark Lawson, who is co-ordinating a campaign to get the cabinet upgraded by BT.

“I get 1.6Mbps on a good day so I’m one of the lucky ones,” he told Cable.co.uk.

The campaign group – named Cheltenham 151 after the cabinet in question – have met with local councillors and Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood as well as with BT Openreach.

“BT won’t upgrade it because they say it’s not commercially viable. It will cost £9,000 plus VAT to fund the gap between the cost of upgrading and what they are willing to fund,” said Mr Lawson.

“We met with Virgin Media but for them to connect the 53 houses they don’t currently serve would cost just under £49,000 – that’s a lot of money.

“Part of the reason that is so high is because the housebuilders put down block paving which means increased costs.”

The campaigners also spoke to Fastershire – the group delivering the government’s national superfast broadband rollout in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.

“They said the 53 houses are eligible but they can’t upgrade the cabinet because it serves a mixture of people who can and can’t get superfast speeds.

'Falling through the cracks'

“We are not on their plan and I doubt we will be until at least 2020. Fastershire won’t hit its target to give 2Mbps to all by the end of the year.”

The Cheltenham 151 residents have decided to follow the route taken by a group in Blackthorn, Oxfordshire, who have paid for their local cabinet to be upgraded.

“We are looking for pledges and are setting up a bank account for a community fund,” said Mr Lawson. “We’ve initially got pledges up to £3,000 and had suggestions of places we can look for grants.”

He said residents felt frustrated as the “whole idea” of the government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme is to fund superfast broadband in places where there is no commercial investment.

“There is no commitment at all from Fastershire, no indication from them that anything will happen.

“There are other areas in Cheltenham with similar problems. We feel as if we are falling through the cracks.”

Advice on the BT Openreach website says: "Sometimes, where our network had to be built in a non-standard way, the costs of deploying superfast fibre means it's not commercially viable for us to provide it to you without external funding.

"If your area doesn’t seem to be covered by the existing BDUK/SEP programmes, an alternative option is for communities to get together and consider private funding – this is where Openreach pay the economically viable cost and private funding covers the remainder."

A decision by Cheltenham Borough Council earlier this year means all new homes built in the area will be required to have access to superfast broadband.

Councillor Roger Whyborn (Lib Dems – Up Hatherley), whose motion to council brought about the change in the planning process, told Cable.co.uk the policy sent out a message to developers and the public that if an estate doesn't have broadband it is a "poorly built one".

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