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Failure to agree broadband deal will leave Devon and Somerset with 'dial-up speeds'

Wednesday, July 8th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Broadband campaigners are demanding answers after Devon and Somerset's superfast project failed to reach a deal with BT for the next phase of the rollout.

Graham Long, from Upottery Parish Council in East Devon, said the counties will be stuck with "dial-up speeds", putting the blame firmly at the feet of Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) project bosses.

Last month, Devon and Somerset county councils announced that the CDS programme had been unable to secure a “value for money deal” and BT would not be awarded a £35m contract for the next phase of the planned superfast broadband rollout.

They said it had emerged that BT could not meet the government's target of achieving 95% superfast coverage by the end of 2017 and so the tender would be reissued as an “open procurement” exercise.

Bosses from both councils voiced their disappointment, accusing BT of a “lack of ambition”, and of “letting down” residents and communities in the two counties.

But Mr Long, who previously voiced concerns that rural residents in the two counties were being “stitched up” by the CDS programme, said the failure was down to the CDS board.

“We now have a potential one or two more years of dial up speeds. Our economies will not survive that. We have already got companies moving out, we will have holiday cottages shutting up and all sorts.”

Mr Long said while the councils had blamed BT, it was no surprise the telecoms giant had said it could not deliver on phase two of the project for £35m, when the original estimated cost of it was over £40m.

“BT knew that 18 months ago, in June 2014, BDUK estimated the cost of the total project would be £45.5m. That’s not a figure drawn out of the air," he said.

'Worst served counties'

“It’s like somebody offering a car for sale and they’re asking £7,000 and you offer £5,000. They'd say, ‘go away’.

Mr Long, who plans to voice his concerns at a Devon County Council cabinet meeting today, accused the CDS board of previously abandoning an ‘open tender process’ and refusing to allow other providers to bid.

He called for the board to be replaced, saying it is “responsible for the fact that rural taxpayers in Devon and Somerset may have to wait another five or more years for a fast broadband service”.

“Devon and Somerset will be the worst-served counties in the UK for fast broadband,” he added.

Mr Long's comments have been backed by Ian Liddell-Grainger MP (Con – Bridgewater and West Somerset), chairman of a newly-formed cross-party parliamentary group on broadband, who said the situation was "absolutely appalling".

“This is the county councils screwing it up and not telling the MPs, not telling anybody,” he told Cable.co.uk. "I'm really not happy about this, this has really left us in a really difficult position.”

“We have now got to go back through the procurement process.”

Mr Liddell-Grainger said he is meeting with BT this week to discuss how they can sort out the “absolute shambles” and called on digital minister Ed Vaizey to "start gripping this personally and sort this out".

A CDS spokesman said it was achieving "remarkable progress" towards its target to deliver superfast speeds to around 90% of premises covered by the programme by the end of 2016, with nearly 172,000 homes and businesses connected to the fibre network across the CDS area.

'Value for money'

The spokesman said the second stage of plans to extend superfast broadband to 95% are already taking shape, including the appointment of Airband last week to connect homes and businesses across Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks using wireless broadband.

“The bid for the larger contract we received from BT did not offer good value for money. It would have left many communities without superfast broadband well beyond our target date of 2017.

"Everyone working on the programme is totally committed to delivering the best possible broadband solution. We also have a duty to invest taxpayer’s money wisely. It would be wrong to accept a bid at any cost and we therefore firmly stand by our decision to not appoint BT to carry out the work.

"Arrangements to find a partner to deliver the rest of the second stage are already in progress. We will confirm timescales as soon as possible.”

A spokesman for BT said it was disappointed it had not been able to reach an agreement on the next phase of the CDS programme.

“We believe we have made the best possible offer to take superfast broadband coverage beyond the current target of around 90% by the end of next year, taking into account the challenging and remote nature of some locations in the two counties," he said.

"Our offer would mean that an additional 34,400 households and businesses in the two counties would have access to superfast broadband by the middle of 2020."

The spokesman said the second phase of the CDS rollout would be a "huge engineering operation", adding that it would have taken BT 15 years to get a return on its investment.

"We will continue to work to try to find a solution," he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it was “disappointing” an agreement could not be reached and the government is working with all parties involved to make sure any delay to the CDS project is minimised.

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