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Digital minister's own constituents bemoan lack of superfast broadband

Thursday, April 16th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Villagers in former digital minister Ed Vaizey’s constituency have hit out at what they see as a u-turn in a decision to bring fibre broadband to them.

Locals in Fernham, Oxfordshire, have been campaigning for months to get upgraded to superfast broadband, after struggling with speeds as low as 0.26Mbps, as well as landline problems including crossed lines and static.

Residents set up campaign group Fernham Broadband after being told there was no plan to bring superfast broadband to the village.

Paul Phillipson (pictured), who lives in the village, told Cable.co.uk that Fernham had been showing as “planned for upgrade” as part of the Better Broadband for Oxfordshire (BBFO) project since July 2014, with an upgrade originally planned to be complete by March-June 2015.

He said a green roadside fibre cabinet was installed in February, but when he enquired when he would be able to sign up for superfast services, he was told Fernham was still “under review” because bringing fibre to the village would be too expensive.

After repeated communication with BT, BBFO and Mr Vaizey himself, who is standing for re-election for the Didcot and Wantage constitutency, Mr Phillipson said he had thought that Fernham was due to get fibre this September.

'New technology'

But it later emerged that superfast speeds will not be brought to the area via the fibre connection residents had hoped for, but using a “new technology” – probably radio.

Mr Phillipson claimed that the reasons for not providing fibre were that the ducts to bring it had been deemed unusable by BT – something he said was due to a lack of maintenance over the years by the company.

He and other residents have previously blamed their landline problems on antiquated infrastructure that is literally "rotting in the ground".

“Broadband is now an essential utility like water and electricity, arguably more essential in rural areas,” he said, citing uses for education, health monitoring, and government services," Mr Phillipson said.

“Until I moved to Fernham in 2010 I never imagined that such a critical service could be so poor in the UK.

“We are not up a mountain or on an island. We are 30 minutes from Oxford, Swindon and Newbury.”

Mr Phillipson said more than 20 residents have joined his fight, contacting BT and Mr Vaizey to voice their frustration at the lengthy wait for superfast speeds.

The village's slow broadband has caused a range of problems, affecting people working from home, those who run their own businesses, households with children using the internet for school or university, as well as causing trouble streaming content like music or films, and communication difficulties.

A BT spokesperson said: "We have been in regular contact with Mr Phillipson and other local residents about our fibre broadband investment in the area.

"Mr Phillipson is served by an exchange-only line, which makes providing superfast speeds more difficult, but we are committed to upgrading as many homes as possible with the funding available in Oxfordshire, so we have explored various options and plan to deliver a radio link solution later this year."

'Unequal rollout'

Asked about the issue, Conservative Mr Vaizey told Cable.co.uk that he understood that Fernham would be connected via 'wireless to the cabinet' technology – using a microwave radio link rather than fibre to connect the exchange to the cabinet.

He said: “This is part of our rollout plans which will bring fibre to 60,000 Oxfordshire homes by the end of the year.”

Labour candidate Stephen Webb said: “The unequal rollout of superfast broadband, across even the constituency of the minister responsible, is an example of the poor deal that rural communities received from the coalition government.

“I am very concerned that government is at the forefront of moving services online, yet is not providing equal access to decent broadband speeds to every business and resident.

“Labour is committed to ensuring that superfast broadband is available to all parts of the country that are not economic for the market to serve unaided.”

Lib Dem candidate Alex Meredith added: “Having visited the site, the situation is ridiculous.

“The way in which BT have changed their mind has left Fernham people in the lurch.

“They have invested already to get the system to a certain point and now are refusing to get the job done.

“That does indicate a fairly shambolic rollout programme which I think is borne out by other stories I hear across the constituency.”

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