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Devon and Somerset superfast broadband delay could be 'fatal', campaigners warn

Monday, September 7th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Delays to the second phase of Devon and Somerset's superfast broadband rollout could be "fatal" to businesses in the area, councillors have been told.

Organisations representing more than 19,000 businesses across the counties urged bosses of the counties’ superfast project to 'learn lessons' to make sure the area doesn’t get left behind.

At a meeting last week, they urged Devon councillors to “demand changes” in the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) programme to make sure there are no more delays to the rollout.

The plea comes after project bosses announced earlier this year that they had failed to reach a deal with BT for the next phase of the rollout, sparking concerns that some areas will have to wait even longer to get connected.

In an address to Devon County Council’s scrutiny committee Graham Long, spokesman for recently-formed campaign group B4RDS, said the CDS board is “in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past unless lessons are learnt and major changes are made to the way this programme is run”.

Speaking on behalf of organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the Countryside Alliance and B4RDS, he told the committee that the ‘final 10%’ of Devon and Somerset includes people working from home, farmers, cottage industries and tourist accommodation, who are all dependent on fast broadband.

The board's decision to choose BT for Phase 2 of the rollout was a "mistake", he said, and although a third attempt to secure Phase 2 suppliers is now underway, the uncertainty “could be fatal to many rural businesses,” he added.

“2Mbps may have been an acceptable speed in 2010 but it needs to be 20Mbps in 2015 and in 2020 businesses will need 200Mbps and so on, that’s how it will progress.”

'Digital apartheid'

“This is an extremely urgent issue for rural economies and digital apartheid of this kind cannot be allowed to continue," he said.

“The FSB, the NFU, the CLA, the BHBA, the Countryside Alliance and B4RDS all call on you to demand changes in this programme that will guarantee that a Phase 2 rural broadband service matching that of the towns and the cities is delivered no later than 2017 and 24Mbps for all by 2018. Those are the BDUK goals.”

Asked about Mr Long's comments, a CDS spokeswoman said the project was making “excellent progress” and bosses still have the ambition to make sure everyone in the area has access to superfast broadband by 2020.

The programme is on track to take superfast broadband to 90% of its area by the end of 2016, with more than 185,000 homes and businesses able to connect, she said.

The spokeswoman said that rural businesses have been at the centre of CDS’s approach and since the rollout started more than two years ago, more than 10,000 businesses have been connected, the majority of which can access superfast speeds, with 20 more business parks added recently.

“The second phase of our plans will tackle the ‘final 10%’ areas. These places are not necessarily geographically remote, but locations where it is very challenging or expensive to connect.”

As part of the second phase, CDS recently awarded a contract to wireless broadband experts Airband to connect 5,800 premises across Dartmoor and Exmoor and by early 2017 superfast broadband will have extended to 96% of homes and businesses in the National Park areas.

“Arrangements to find a partner to deliver the main part of our second phase are in progress,” the spokeswoman added.

“The CDS programme has been conducting early market engagement over the summer for phase 2, whilst negotiating a new state aid approval with the EU and BDUK and preparing to launch an open procurement exercise in the autumn.

“We are working as quickly as possible to get superfast broadband up and running for our rural communities.”

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