Broadband

Member Update 16th December

CFPs are a co-funded approach to improving broadband connectivity, with Openreach covering costs that fall within its own commercial threshold. The remaining costs have to be funded by the local community either via Government backed voucher schemes or other funding sources. The aim of CFPs is to facilitate Openreach to build a customised fibre solution for areas where there are no plans to upgrade the network or to deliver an ever faster internet connection. CFPs deliver a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) service with download speeds of 1Gbps.

FDT requested costs from Openreach for a CFP covering the whole of our area. However, on 3rd November, Openreach advised us that a single CFP, for the whole of Finderne, was not an option and that project proposals would have to be based on the physical locations of the telephone exchanges that serve the area. In our case this being:

  1. Alves Exchange – for properties in the Burgie area
  2. Dunphail Exchange – for properties in the Edinkillie, Dunphail, Relugas, Glenerney and Braemoray areas
  3. Forres Exchange – for properties in the Rafford, Easter Lawrenceton, Cathay, Logie, and Altyre areas.

Openreach provided two indicative cost estimates. These estimates outline the likely costs for bringing Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) to Finderne to enable download speeds of 1Gbps. The first estimate included 159 premises connected to the Dunphail telephone exchange. This amounted to £1,230,454.00 – a cost of £7,738.70 per premise. The second estimate included 64 premises connected to the Alves exchange. Premises connected to this exchange had a significantly higher estimated cost of £14,913.41, totalling to £954,458.00.

Despite requesting a CFP that included all 498 properties in Finderne, we did not receive an estimated cost for properties serviced by the Forres Exchange. We were told by Openreach that this was because they had lodged an application with the Scottish Government to bring FTTP to the Forres exchange which would cover this area as part of their own commercial rollout and were advised that they were expecting a decision on this application ‘soon’.

FDT did not want to only announce the two estimated costs for Dunphail and Alves as we knew that the community would raise the question of why the Forres Exchange had been missed out.

We again requested costs for a CFP covering the Forres Exchange and whilst we waited for news on this, we focused on exploring all options for reducing the high costs involved as much as possible. We asked Openreach if self-dig was an option but were simply advised ‘no’ – our project was not eligible for this due to the nature of the area. We have asked this question again, considering our good relationship with local landowners, but are still awaiting any advice.

Openreach suggested that instead, we could consider removing premises from the CFP that contributed greatly to the civil engineering costs of laying the fibre cable and then look at alternative solutions for these properties. We were of course keen to explore all options and so made two requests:

1) that Openreach provide us with a breakdown of the estimated costs so that we could better understand how the figures had been reached and

2) that Openreach provide us with a copy of the map which plotted every household in Finderne and advised which premises could potentially be removed to achieve smaller costs.

Together, this would have provided the Board with the information required to take a strategic decision about how to proceed. Having pushed Openreach for this information on several occasions we were very disappointed to be supplied with elementary maps that mapped properties in the wrong locations. Some even showing properties mapped on Forres High Street.

We have also been putting efforts into establishing how many premises are eligible to draw down funding from the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) funding. Having received conflicting information, we wrote to both Openreach and the Scottish Government and have now been advised that any premises currently receiving a 30Mbps service are not eligible for a voucher, regardless of whether that connection is Next Generation Access compliant. We are still trying to establish the exact number of premises that fall into this category, but it will be significant in funding terms.

On 12th November, FDT wrote a formal request to Openreach and the Scottish Government to clarify all of these issues – the fact that we had not received a quote for the Forres exchange, our request for a cost breakdown, the mapping of properties and the challenging timescale of reaching a CFP agreement before the R100 Lot 1 contract was signed at the end of this year.

We contacted MSP Richard Lochhead to ask for his immediate assistance in helping us to progress the CFP. Richard met with us on the 13th and then liaised with Openreach to arrange a joint meeting.

During this meeting, which took place on 25th November, Openreach committed to providing the information we had requested, and Richard Lochhead offered to schedule a follow up meeting to include key Scottish Government officials so that clarification on the SBVS could be given.

The information required from Openreach was not received prior to the follow up meeting on the 9th December. The information was again requested during the meeting and a further committed to provide it was given by the Openreach representative. At the time of writing this community update, over 6 weeks since the original request, we have still not received the fundamental cost information from Openreach.

We have been advised today, 14th December, that the Lot 1 contract for R100 has been signed but the detailed build plan will not be released until summer 2021. Households will not know, therefore, until around July/August if they are in the build plan or not. This makes it extremely difficult to advise our community on what actions to take around the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS).

If residents apply for and use the SBVS to improve their current service above 30Mbps they will be excluded from the R100 build programme. The R100 plan may, albeit not guaranteed, include full fibre connections of 1Gbps capacity, so residents could inadvertently exclude themselves from long term, “future proofed”, solutions by acting too quickly.

If, on the other hand, residents are eventually told that they are not included in the R100 plan they will be eligible to use the SBVS for any improvements they can find but will have had to endure a further 6-9 months of poor broadband service.

Those residents that are confirmed to be in the R100 build plan will be told approximately when the service will be provided and this could be as far out as 2024. If the timeline is beyond December 2021 these residents will be eligible for an Interim Voucher Scheme that will cover costs of up to £400 for temporary solutions. Taking up this voucher will not impact eligibility for the final R100 solution.

We, with support from the Finderne Community Council, have asked the Scottish Government, via Richard Lochhead, to change the implementation policy on the interim voucher so that it can be released immediately without impacting eligibility for R100 or SBVS. This would allow the Finderne community to quickly access decent broadband without inadvertently compromising the possibility of ultimately getting a future proofed solution.

To help Finderne community members to navigate through this, FDT are now preparing a decision and eligibility flow diagram for the SBVS and R100 which we will share in due course.

We have done our utmost to be completely transparent as we have manoeuvred through this complex and frustrating piece of work. Our efforts have been significantly, and adversely, impacted by the handling of our CFP request by Openreach. It is now evident that a CFP solution will not be possible for Finderne and we will work with the Finderne Community Council to try to find appropriate, temporary, improvements until the R100 detail is revealed. We would encourage you to make representations to Richard Lochhead in support of a change to the Interim Voucher scheme.

We will continue to push for a solution for Finderne. Thank you for your support.

If you have any questions, please do contact us on hello@findernedevelopmenttrust.com or on 07483 133 203.

Member Update 18th November

We are still working very hard to progress a Community Fibre Partnership for Finderne but having faced additional challenges, we are now arranging a further meeting with Richard Lochhead MSP and Openreach, and hope to provide a full update to the community after our queries have been answered. This has been a long journey to date and would like to thank you all for your continued patience and support. Please know that we are doing everything we can to ensure that fast broadband comes to Finderne.

Member Update 2nd October

Following our announcement on the 14th September that we would focus our efforts on pursuing a Community Fibre Partnership (CFP) for a full fibre solution for Finderne with Openreach, we have now completed the second step of the eight step process. We now wait for Openreach to provide us with an indicative cost.

The average timeframe for delivery of a CPF is between 10 and 12 months, however, we are facing two main hurdles.

Like all businesses, Openreach have had to introduce safe working practices to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the R100 build in Lots 2 and 3 progressed throughout lockdown, they met inevitable challenges with this, with planning and roadworks. COVID-19 will also impact CFPs in the same way.

The second hurdle we face is the timing of the R100 Lot 1 contract signing. It is expected that this will be signed before Christmas. It recently came to light that if CFP contracts are not agreed and signed before this time, that any households included in the R100 build plan will not be eligible to draw down any state aid funding. We are working closely with Openreach to make sure that we stand the best possible chance of making this very tight deadline in the next 3 months.

In the meantime, we must ask you to all patiently sit tight until the year end as the time will come when we need you to pledge your Scottish Broadband and Rural Gigabit Vouchers to help towards the costs of the project. We will not be able to access this funding twice so any vouchers used now will be lost and cannot contribute to a CFP solution. We will let you know when the time comes to apply for your vouchers.

As we move through this process, it will be critical that we have as many households in Finderne signed up as members of the Trust so that we can reach all households who want to benefit from this as quickly and as simply as possible. If you are not yet a member, please do sign up here.

Member Update 14th September 

We had hoped to make an announcement on our broadband project some weeks ago to let you know that the Board had decided to proceed with an interim wireless solution whilst awaiting the Reaching 100% (R100) commitment, however, the landscape has continued to dramatically shift with the introduction of a new Scottish Government voucher scheme. With this being the case, we felt it was important to review the latest situation.

The Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme was announced on 18th August and will provide funding of up to £5,000 to help homes and businesses not in scope of either R100 contracts or planned commercial investment to obtain superfast broadband where providers may not ordinarily go. The scheme will fund “Next Generation Access” compliant solutions (which the interim wireless solution would not be) and can be used in conjunction with the UK wide Rural Gigabit Voucher Schemewhich provides up to £1,500 for residential properties and £3,500 for SMEs with broadband speeds of less than 100Mbps.

With this potential funding available we have considered the options again and now believe that proceeding with a Community Fibre Partnership could give us next generation capacity within 12 months from the “get go”. We propose that this would be the best solution for the majority of Finderne.

Whilst we understand, and very much share, the community frustration with the situation, it is clear to us that we must rapidly turn our attention to a community fibre partnership solution. All of our efforts will now be focused on this approach.

We will keep you, and the wider community, up-to-date with any news and welcome you to share your comments or ask us a question by contacting us on hello@findernedevelopmenttrust.com.

Member Update 27th May 2020

With the availability of fast broadband coming top of the Finderne community wish list during our community engagement in 2018, we announced the facilitation of broadband as one of six projects that would be the focus of our efforts in the initial years of delivering our Strategic Plan.

Since June 2019, we have been investigating how fast broadband can best be made available for all homes and businesses in Finderne. This update summarises progress to date.

Our research began with Reaching 100% (R100).

REACHING 100% (R100)

R100 is the commitment made by the Scottish Government in 2017 to invest £600m to tackle the 5 per cent of predominately rural premises that previous digital programmes, such as Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband, did not reach. The R100 commitment states:

We want every home and business in Scotland to have access to superfast broadband by 2021 – this is our “Reaching 100%” (R100) commitment. By superfast, we mean speeds greater than 30 Mbps.

Contracts for three geographical regions in Scotland (North, Central and South) were originally intended to be awarded by the end of 2018. This was delayed and final bids were then due to be submitted in January 2019, followed by contracts being awarded in March 2019. Last June, it was confirmed that contracts were expected to be signed by the end of 2019.

We liaised with both Douglas Ross MP and Richard Lochhead MSP to discuss Finderne’s situation and highlight the need for more information on R100 timescales for delivery so that we could consider making a strategic investment decision. At this time, the Board decided to ascertain more about R100 before moving forward with any alternative initiatives. This decision was supported by both Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Openreach.

It was announced on 21st November that BT (Openreach) had been selected as the preferred bidder for the final R100 contract – North – awarding BT all three contacts. However, this decision has been challenged by one bidder, Gigaclear Limited, which has put contract signature on hold until legal proceedings have concluded. This means that timescales for delivery of R100 are still unknown. The Government have announced a plan to launch a voucher scheme to provide superfast broadband from satellite or mobile operators to those who will not be connected in the original timescale of 2021. The voucher scheme is due to be rolled out later this year. When this announcement was made, we asked for a better indication on timescales but the official line – “later this year”- remains. It is not yet clear, however, how this scheme will be administered or how much these vouchers will be worth. It is likely that they will be of variable value depending on circumstance and available solutions. These vouchers will be in addition to other schemes in play such as the Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme. Therefore, R100 remains a scheme with uncertain timescales and delivery outcomes for Finderne.

COMMUNITY FIBRE PARTNERSHIPS

We have also researched Community Fibre Partnerships, a scheme offered by Openreach as a possible solution. Community Fibre Partnerships offer communities the opportunity to build their own customised fibre solution. They have worked well for communities that benefit from windfarm funding, such as Achnasheen, who successfully worked with Openreach to connect 140 households in their community. See here for a short video which showcases their project. Achnasheen previously had speeds of 0.5Mbps. Strathdearn Community Developments Company have also delivered broadband to their community in this way. A Community Fibre Partnership is one of the alternatives that FDT would consider taking forward if no alternative option becomes available, but the geography of Finderne makes this option both complex and expensive.

WIRELESS

Another avenue which we have explored is rolling out fixed wireless technology and we have held discussions with local providers Logie Net, Highland Wireless, WiFi Scotland and Monsternet.

Wireless technology is well explained on the Logie Net webpage here. Logie Net has already connected many homes in the south of Finderne. It does not currently have equipment in place that could cover the whole of Finderne.

WiFi Scotland have submitted an outline proposal detailing how they could service the Rafford area, reaching approximately 275 homes by erecting two new mast sites. This infrastructure would require financial investment and we are currently in discussions with WiFi Scotland on the terms that this could be agreed under. WiFi Scotland have indicated that they could potentially build this within 3 months. It is therefore a scheme which the FDT may consider taking forward as one part of a possible solution for Finderne.

UNIVERSAL SERVICE OBLIGATION

A potential game-changer which came into effect from March this year, is the Universal Service Obligation (USO) which forms part of BT’s regulatory structure, was extended to make the supply of “decent broadband speeds” part of BT’s USO. This will give people the legal right to request a connection of at least 10 Mbps and 1 Mbps upload speed in areas where no future upgrades are planned to be delivered. The service must cost no more than £45 inc. VAT per month. Openreach would pay for the installation up to a cost of no more than £3,400 per household.

BT is the USO provider for Scotland and it is our understanding, based on our research and early indications and responses from a series of requests made already, that the majority of connections will be offered via their “mobile” EE 4G network, and not their fixed line network. Sites that do not get a 4G signal will be considered for a full fibre connection, but the obligation to supply this is subject to the price cap of £3,400 per household connected. Extra costs of putting in the requisite line and equipment must be funded by the customer and if the customer cannot or will not do this, no upgrade to the existing service will be provided. In this instance, customers would have to either seek one of the alternative solutions mentioned above or wait until R100 is delivered. It has been confirmed that, Rural Gigabit Vouchers cannot be used to top up the customer contribution to the supply of upgraded speeds via the USO.

However, the £3,400 price cap is not a very accurate guide to the intended roll-out of the USO upgrades. BT is obliged to “aggregate” the cost of supply by “assuming” an uptake of at least 70% of the households in the area to be supplied, and dividing the “aggregate” cost among that 70% whether there is a request from them or not. How this operates in practice is still not transparent, and we are looking into the detail further. FDT would like to encourage every household in Finderne that is in need of a better broadband connection to check their postcode and submit a request to BT on the link here. If Finderne residents would then feed back their experience and BT’s responses to FDT, we shall be able to take up the cause of Finderne with BT to take the greatest advantage that can be obtained from the USO change.

4G

Another viable option is mobile operators. There are currently ten networks, such as EE, O2 and Three, which now offer unlimited 4G Data packages. FDT has been made aware that BT is recommending certain households to switch to one of these mobile operators. Download speeds are greater than 10MBps but are not necessarily “superfast”. Signal availability can be checked on Ofcom’s website here.

Because signal quality is so variable within Finderne, the data available to Ofcom (and BT) officially is not necessarily borne out by individual speed-check tests. The possibility of securing some form of specific “testing” facility both as to speeds and availability that could be made available to Finderne residents who cannot obtain decent broadband speeds by any of the methods described above is under consideration. The viability of such a scheme is dependent on the feedback we receive in relation to the actual experience of our residents in seeking USO-level supplies of broadband.

SUMMARY

To summarise, four options are under review:

  • secure the best deals available for individual households and businesses under the various mobile options and the recently effective USO scheme,
  • consider investing in privately owned WiFi schemes,
  • wait until the Scottish Government deliver R100, or
  • further investigate a Community Fibre Partnership.

It is clear that there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution for Finderne due to its rurality, and the rapidly developing alternatives that BT are now obliged to offer. We had planned to discuss all of these options with you at a community meeting in March. This was postponed due to COVID-19. This update is the best way that we can communicate with you during lockdown on this key issue.

We believe any solution will have to include a combination within Finderne of wireless, the USO and mobile options, which can only be evaluated on a location by location basis.

We appreciate that there is a lot of information to digest and that you may have thoughts or questions so please send any queries or comments to hello@findernedevelopmenttrust.com.