Broadband

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.