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Devon and Somerset 'stitched up' by superfast broadband rollout

Tuesday, January 27th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Residents in parts of Devon and Somerset have been “stitched up” by the rural broadband programme which is ignoring rural taxpayers’ needs, a campaigner has claimed.

Graham Long, from Upottery Parish Council in East Devon, said up to 90,000 households in the two counties could be left unable to access superfast broadband, despite a nationwide rollout programme.

The difference between urban and rural connectivity is creating a digital and economic divide, Mr Long warned, with businesses leaving rural areas in search of better connections.

The government has set a target of bringing superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps and above) to 90% of the UK by 2016 through its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme.

A superfast extension programme aims to extend coverage to 95% by the end of the following year.

But Mr Long said the current Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) Superfast Broadband programme is leaving rural homes and business behind.

The large proportion of properties left out in rural areas compared to urban areas means as few as 10% of properties in his parish will be able to access superfast speeds by the end of 2016, he said.

Residents had hoped the next phase of the rollout would see CDS bring in private investment through an “open tendering process”, taking superfast speeds to 100% of people.

But Mr Long said CDS recently announced that while it will allow bids from other suppliers in the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, the rest of the area will use the same framework as phase one, which he said effectively means the contract will go to BT for most of the two counties.

'Deaf ears'

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, Mr Long said parishes in his area have average broadband speeds of 0.5-3Mbps. According to telecoms regulator Ofcom, average superfast broadband speeds across the country are approximately 47Mbps.

A petition on the issue, calling for faster broadband in all of Devon and Somerset, not just larger villages and towns, received more than 1,000 signatures, but has fallen on “deaf ears”, he said.

Neil Parish (Con – Tiverton and Honiton), a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, raised the issue in December with BDUK head Chris Townsend, and is now due to chair a public meeting on the issue next month.

Mr Long said many people at the meeting on February 6 would be very angry, adding: “Quite frankly, we’ve been stitched up.”

A spokeswoman for Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) said: “The CDS programme will cover all areas that are not already being rolled out commercially, as our aim is to provide 100% superfast broadband coverage to the area.

“Once we have a delivery partner confirmed for this next phase of the project, we will update the maps on our website showing exactly the areas that are going to be covered.

“Until we have completed our procurement we are not able to comment on which areas will be upgraded or indeed when.

Before any timescales can be given about areas to be covered, detailed surveys have to be carried out for each new cabinet, looking at terrain, the connection and planning permissions and land ownerships, she said.

The spokeswoman said they had explored a "fully open" procurement process, but after consultation with other suppliers, government and partners, had decided on a combined procurement approach to build on the "momentum" they had established so far.

She said the open procurement process for Exmoor and Dartmoor national parks offers the "best of both worlds".

Cable.co.uk approached BT, who declined to comment on the story.

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