This paper is a summary of the FDT’s journey to date along the road towards decent Broadband connectivity for the community. It is a story of effort, frustration and, so far, failure to arrive at the destination. We still hope that we can help as many of the community members as possible to find a solution to the dreadful broadband service that is available to most people in Finderne.
Broadband speeds are measured in Mega Bits per second (Mbps) and the recognised definitions for levels of connectivity are
- Acceptable = 10Mbps
- Superfast = 30Mbps
- Ultrafast = 300Mbps
- Giga bit = 1,000Mbps
At the start of the FDT journey the average speed of connections provided by the Openreach telephone network in Finderne was less than 2Mbps.
Superfast broadband connections provide pretty well everything that a domestic user currently needs. However, businesses that need to move very large amounts of data, and the ever-increasing speeds of computer-based technology, means that to “future proof” a service, the target for performance needs to be “Ultrafast”. Realistically the only financially viable technology able to deliver Ultrafast service to rural communities is Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) whereby a fibre optic cable is run to each household.
The journey’s first leg
After the incorporation of the FDT, one of the highest priority projects was to investigate a Broadband improvement solution for the community. The Scottish Government had closed down its previous broadband improvements grants and had announced that it was working on a new project, called R100, that would supposedly deliver Superfast broadband to 100% of premises in Scotland. The Scottish Government stated that it would announce the details of the R100 project in late 2019.
The FDT investigated the options for delivering a fixed wireless system to the north of Finderne (Rafford & Burgie) using a system similar to the excellent work that had been achieved by LogieNet in the Dunphail area. This type of service, using line of sight connections, was capable of delivering Superfast speeds of >30Mbps but was not capable of delivering Ultrafast service.
Consultancy surveys were carried out by two potential contractor partners and sites around the Califer Hill area were identified as possible relay stations for the line-of-sight transmission of broadband connection. A technical solution was scoped out which would have had the FDT providing the capital costs for masts and transmitters and a commercial internet provider delivering the customer service to residents. The FDT was just about to canvas community residents to sign up to the scheme when the Scottish Government announced an important update on its R100 programme.
The R100 announcement included a number of critically important factors that affected the FDT plans.
- The Scottish Government procurement team had got themselves into a legal mess with the R100 contracts. The country was split in to 3 contractual lots, (south, central and north), and the south and central contracts had been placed with Openreach. The north lot contract had been contested and when the Scottish Government tried to appoint Openreach again the decision was challenged by the other bidder. The signing of the north contract was put on hold pending a judicial review with an estimated 12-15 month delay expected.
- The Scottish Government announced that the R100 program would include a Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) which would be split in to two parts.
- There would be an “Interim” voucher (worth £400), for any premises that was identified as being part of the main R100 program, to allow residents to put in a temporary improvement pending the final solution being delivered.
- A “Main” voucher (worth £5,000) for those residences that were not included in the R100 plan.
- The Scottish Government announced that where technically and financially feasible the R100 plan, which would only guarantee Superfast service, would be based on FTTP technology and might therefore deliver a future proofed Ultrafast service. However, any premises that already had a service with a speed >30Mbps would be excluded from the R100 plan and would not be eligible for the SBVS.
The net result of these points (and particularly point 3) was that if the FDT proceeded with a fixed wireless, line of sight, service delivering >30Mbps we could inadvertently exclude those residents using the service from getting an Ultrafast service through R100. This was particularly relevant for residences near the Dunphail exchange and in Rafford where there was a high likelihood that the R100 plan would be delivered through a FTTP solution.
In light of this the FDT Board reluctantly took the decision not to proceed with the developed plan because the risk of adversely impacting a future proofed solution for a large part of the community was too great. Whilst we still believe this was the correct decision, this had cost us over a year of time and work.
The second leg of the journey
Faced with the situation arising out of first leg we approached HIE for guidance on what other options were available. The advice was that the only solution that would guarantee an Ultrafast service, and hence negate the inherent risk of exclusion from the R100 plan, was a Community Fibre Partnership (CFP) which, as the name suggests, would create a community owned network based on FTTP technology. This approach would be eligible for the SBVS scheme but, because they owned and operated the telephone exchange system, it could only be delivered by Openreach. HIE introduced FDT to the relevant Openreach representative and work on developing a CFP commenced.
The judicial review of the R100 north lot contract eventually found in favour of the Scottish Government and they recommenced negotiations with Openreach. At first, the delay to the R100 contract appeared to work to our advantage because once that contract was signed the option for a CFP would be closed off. In June 2020 we were advised by Openreach that the expected date for the R100 contract signing was end January 2021 which gave us 6 months to get a CFP in place.
The critical cost information to evaluate a CFP, and go to prospective community customers, was totally dependent upon Openreach providing a total delivery cost. The intention was to aggregate the funds from the SBVS so that the vouchers from the easier to reach, and therefore cheaper, residences would subsidise the connections to the more remote, and more expensive, parts of Finderne.
In September 2020 Openreach advised us that they were not willing to give us a “Finderne Community” based CFP but that each of the telephone exchanges that serviced the community, namely Alves, Dunphail and Forres, would have to be treated separately. This effectively meant that Openreach were saying that the cross subsidy between the different areas of Finderne would not be allowed.
Furthermore, Openreach provided cost estimates for delivery of FTTP for those residences covered by the Alves and Dunphail exchanges (averaging around £15k per residence) but declared that the cost from the Forres exchange would not be provided. Given that our work up to that point had been predicated on an overall Finderne solution we sought help from Richard Lochhead MSP to push Openreach into a more cooperative position. On three occasions over the next 3 months (twice in the presence of Richard Lochhead) the representative from Openreach committed to provide the FDT with a cost for FTTP provision from the Forres exchange.
On 14th December 2020, 6 weeks earlier than we had been told the R100 contract would be signed, and still without the provision of the CFP costs for the Forres exchange, the Scottish Government and Openreach signed the north lot contract and closed the door on a Finderne CFP. We were never given an explanation from Openreach as to why they did not provide the CFP quote for the Forres exchange. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that it was a commercial decision.
Another leg of the journey that failed and another 12 months lost after significant effort.
A third leg on the journey
In January 2021 we approached the R100 implementation team and asked for a list of residences in Finderne that would be in the R100 main program, and those that would not, so that we could investigate a solution for the parts of the community that would not be included in the main scheme. We were told that this information could not be provided until sometime in “the summer” because Openreach were now working on the detailed implementation plan and until this was finished, they could not say who was in the main scheme and who wasn’t.
This again stymied any move from FDT because of the risk to compromising provision of FTTP via the R100 main plan. We made representation to Richard Lochhead to help with the impasse without avail. Our work was, to all intents and purposes, stalled awaiting the announcement of the R100 plan. We advised the community to check on the Scottish Government website (www.scotlandsuperfast.com) the status of their premises in the plan.
During the period April 2021 to September 2021 a number of premises in the Rafford area changed from being declared “in” the main R100 plan to being “out” of the plan. This changing situation confirmed that it was impossible to make any firm plans for an independent approach to the broadband provision ahead of a declared R100 plan. During this period FDT had a number of discussions with potential contractors about solutions that might be implementable once the details of the R100 plan were known.
The R100 team finally made their announcement of the main plan in September 2021 and, after 3 requests from FDT for them to provide us with a Finderne specific list of the status of each individual residences in our community, we received this information in October.
This information made two things clear
- FDT needed to inform the whole community of their status in the R100 plan and advise what options were available because there was a high risk that members of the community were still not aware of whether R100 would deliver any improvement to their internet service.
- The deadline of March 2022 for the ending of the SBVS interim voucher was too soon for any contractor to develop, cost and submit a project to the R100 team for funding support.
To address 1. above the FDT wrote a personalised letter to every household explaining their status in the R100 plan and asking whether they wished to get involved in a community project.
For 2. above we contacted Richard Lochhead in mid-December 2021 asking for an urgent intervention to request the Scottish Government to extend the Interim voucher scheme.
The FDT survey on Broadband did not result in many requests for support for a community-based solution. Whilst this was surprising, given the declared importance by the community for improved broadband, it was perhaps understandable because the main density of households around Rafford were listed on the R100 plan as being due for completion in the second half of 2022. This meant that there was little incentive for potential contractors to work up a proposal because there was insufficient critical mass of interest to make a proposal financially viable.
Our request to Richard Lochhead for support in getting an extension to the interim voucher scheme finally resulted in a meeting in late April 2022. At this meeting he advised that the Cabinet Secretary responsible for R100 had advised him that there would be no extension to the scheme because there had been insufficient interest shown in the grants despite “extensive marketing” of the available support. We challenged this assertion and Richard Lochhead committed to having further discussion with the Cabinet Secretary and R100 team officials.
Between April 2022 and August 2022, the FDT sent several messages to Richard Lochhead asking for updates on the situation. In September 2022 we discovered that there had been a change in the R100 plan and those premises in Rafford, that were originally scheduled for completion in the second half of 2022, had been rescheduled for 2024. We wrote immediately to Richard Lochhead to highlight this change and asked for an urgent explanation of why this change had happened.
On 29th November 2022 we finally received a response from Richard Lochhead saying that there had been a “remodelling” of the Openreach plan for the R100 implementation and that no extension of the interim voucher scheme would be forthcoming. The net result of this is that those residents in Finderne that were originally scheduled for R100 completion in late 2022, who had no plausible reason to apply for an interim voucher prior to the scheme’s closure in March 2022, will now have to wait at least a further 2 years for an improvement to their broadband service. They are not eligible for the SBVS main voucher, because they remain in the R100 main plan, but there is no support available to provide them with a temporary improvement solution. We are very disappointed that our community has been put on the back burner again, but there appears to be nothing that the Scottish Government is willing to do to help.
A fourth leg to the journey?
We do not know what, if any, options remain available for a collaborative approach to finding a solution to the poor broadband service across much of our community. It is clear that the Scottish Government’s R100 plans will bring nothing forward in the short to medium term, but the FDT’s desire to provide support to the community remains undiminished. If you want to get involved in a collaborative approach to finding a solution, please get in touch with us and together we will explore what might be possible.
FDT – December 2022