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Villagers left waiting for superfast broadband after BT 'changed its mind', councillor claims

Friday, April 24th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

Broadband users in rural areas are having to wait even longer for superfast upgrades when BT changes its mind about which areas it can cover by a commercial rollout, campaigners have claimed.

Residents in the Rutland village of Braunston-in-Rutland are frustrated by the continuing wait for fibre broadband, which is now unlikely to happen until the end of the year.

Around 90% of Rutland – England’s smallest county – now has access to superfast speeds, but Braunston is faced with an even longer wait after BT passed responsibility for bringing fibre back to the area’s publicly-funded project.

Under ‘state aid’ rules, individual superfast projects can only get government funding for areas not already covered by a commercial rollout.

Braunston was originally included in BT’s commercial fibre rollout, meaning it could not benefit from Rutland County Council’s Digital Rutland project.

Jim Atack, a parish councillor from the village, said the installation of broadband in the area was originally anticipated to cost around £15,000, leading Braunston to deny an offer of private fibre.

But he said the telecoms giant later “changed its mind” about bringing fibre to the village, saying there were too few lines to make it commercially viable, and later providing a price of £45,000 to carry out the work.

Rutland County Council could not get involved until BT relinquished its commercial hold over the area, Mr Atack said, and then had to reapply to the government scheme.

He said: “RCC has been trying to pick up the pieces, but is hamstrung by Government policy and process.”

It is now expected that Braunston is unlikely to get fibre before late this year, possibly 2016, he said.

Intervention areas

Helen Briggs, chief executive of Rutland County Council, told Cable.co.uk that having areas handed back by commercial bodies, was a major frustration for local authorities.

Ms Briggs, who is also involved in SPARSE (Sparsity Partnership for Authorities Delivering Rural Services) – a coalition of England’s 55 most rural local governments – said they had highlighted the issue to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in a presentation on rural broadband.

She said the Digital Rutland project had asked commercial providers to say exactly where they would roll out broadband commercially, so their own “intervention area” – the area they would spend public funds on – excluded those covered by a commercial rollout.

But she said commercial providers were now handing back areas where it was too costly to roll out fibre.

“Basically what commercial providers are saying to us is, ‘we no longer have any plans to roll out improved broadband in those areas so they’re coming back to you as a local authority to deal with'.

“So what that means is we have to add those to the properties that we need to cover with improved broadband which means that some of the more challenging deeply rural areas are suffering as a consequence.”

She added this made it harder to plan the superfast rollout for their area in the long-term, effectively pushing harder-to-reach consumers further down the line.

“We’ve had roughly about 1,000 properties handed back which won’t sound a lot to you, but in the context of a population of 37,600 and our total number of properties being 18,600, it’s a big chunk to come back to us.

“So in terms of how we plan for the future, we now have to plan for roughly 1,000 properties we didn’t think we were going to have.”

'Seriously disappointed'

Ms Briggs believes the problem is not unique to Rutland.

She said: “That will be happening right across the country but it is disproportionately disadvantaging the rural areas.”

She said it meant people who expected they were going to get improved broadband were being left seriously disappointed after "flawed assumptions" led to areas being included in commercial plans.

“They thought they would be able to do something and they can’t, and obviously that makes a big difference to the cost, and so that’s why they’ve handed it back.

“So a community that thought it was going to get improved broadband two years ago is still sat waiting."

A BT spokesperson said during a council’s Open Market Review process, BT shares its early plans for upgrading broadband cabinets over the next three years.

“These plans are provided in good faith and based on the information we have available at the time, but we are always clear that there’s still a lot of detailed surveys and planning work to be carried out.

“In a small handful of cases, this leads to areas which we thought were viable being removed from BT’s plans.

“When that happens and no other providers plan to offer a service there, the area can be included in the intervention area of the local BDUK partnership.”

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