EDDC/SSDC Broadband Scrutiny Panel

On January 16, 2014, the Broadband Scrutiny Panel (Called a Task and Finish Forum) set up by East Devon and South Somerset District Councils, met in public at Honiton Business Centre. This Panel was set up in October 2013 under the Chairmanship of Cllr Tim Wood (EDDC Portfolio Holder for Scrutiny) and facilitated by Emily McGuinness (Scrutiny Manager at SSDC) to investigate the £53M CD&S/BT Contract. Click on the agenda below for a larger version. Below that is a summary of the meeting together with a paper submitted to the TaFF panel before the meeting.

 

Updates as of February 4, 2014: 

Official notes from the Jan 16 meeting have now been posted on the EDDC website at http://www.eastdevon.gov.uk/rural_broadband_task_and_finish_forum They are also available in pdf format by clicking on the download file section at the very bottom of this page.

There is also a good and accurate story in the Western Morning News, Feb 4, 2014 about the BT gagging order:

Notes of the EDDC/SSDC Broadband Task & Finish Forum Meeting January 16, 10am to 12pm taken by Graham Long:

 “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns; But there are also unknown unknowns.....” 

(to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld)

Because of the BT NDA gagging order, the CD&S fibre broadband implementation scheduled clearly falls into the “unknown unknowns” category in the white areas of the CD&S Final Implementation Map.

Under the chairmanship of Cllr Tim Wood, EDDC portfolio holder for scrutiny, and in a room packed with many representatives from rural parishes across Devon and Somerset, the meeting began with members of the public being allowed 3 minutes each to ask questions, followed by a presentation from BT and CD&S who were represented by Laurent Boon (BT), Keri Denton (CD&S), Cllr Andrew Leadbetter, (DCC Portfolio Holder for CD&S) and Cllr David Hall, (SSDC, who was part of the CD&S biding and procurement team).

A number of pointed questions were asked by members of the public after which BT made what was, in effect, a marketing presentation saying how good a job BT are doing bringing fibre broadband to UK taxpayers. Tim Wood confirmed that minutes of the TaFF meeting would be published on the EDDC website within one week of January 16 and a link to them will be provided on this website when they become available.

Following the BT presentation the TaFF Councillors asked questions of BT & CD&S and the following are some of the key points made: (NB this summary should not be regarded as a full record of the meeting):

Tim Wood stated that at the present rate of progress, it would be optimistic to expect the TaFF to publish its report by the end of February, as suggested at the October TaFF meeting.

BT stated that where it delivers FTTC services, customers could expect to get up to 80Mbps download speeds (next to a cabinet) and if a customer pays for the FTTP service they could expect to get up to 330Mbps download speed.

BT confirmed that in agreement with CD&S they are treating Bridgewater and the area east of Exeter as priority areas for fibre broadband deployment.

It was claimed by BT that once the current CD&S programme is completed on Dec 31, 2016,Devon and Somerset will have better fibre connectivity than London. This sounds very unlikely, and may simply be a case of the clever use of statistics.

Keri Denton confirmed that CD&S are trying to obtain some of the additional £250M funding for rural broadband which the government have promised but which is not yet on the table. If this money is real (and not just a vote winning statement for the next election) she stated that CD&S would not be tied to spending this money with BT.

In answer to the question “Who is the competitor that BT wish to keep their information from and which necessitates councils signing the NDA gagging order?”, BT named Virgin, but Cllr Ian Thomas pointed out that Virgin only operates in a small area of Exeter and not at all in rural Devon and Somerset.

There was much said about the NDA as the reason many people find the drip feed of BT implementation plans a poor substitute for real estimates about when residents and businesses across the two counties can expect to see some benefit from the £53M of public money. The NDA was clearly a BT contractual requirement, with Cllr Andrew Leadbetter stating that the only way of avoiding the NDA was by not placing the contract with BT (who were the only company bidding for the contract after Fujitsu pulled out).

Cllr Leadbetter said there was “a lot of negativity in the room”, but he also pointed out that the contract with BT was signed before he personally became responsible for the CD&S portfolio and he said he would prefer it if the NDA was not in place, but that was now history.

It was pointed out that BT has it within their powers to remove the NDA should they wish to.

Keri Denton said that if a council signs the NDA, they would receive detailed project data on implementation plans by postcode for the 11 phases of the CD&S project

Mark Williams, Chief Exec of EDDC and SSDC councils, said he was invited to sign the NDA but also that if he did not, EDDC/SSDC would not be disadvantaged as a result. He decided not to sign it because he could see no point in having information he could neither communicate to others nor act on.

The Chairman, trying to move things forward, suggested that the TaFF divide its work into two parts: (a) Understanding where we are, and (b) Finding a way to move forward recognising that the NDA is a fixed part of the contract that has been signed with BT. Cllr Paul Diviani and other Councillors supported putting focus on finding a way forward for the “final 10%” – the white areas of the CD&S map and commented that the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) had just secured an additional 18MEuros (£14.9M) for broadband in Devon & Somerset. See http://www.heartofswlep.co.uk/ for more information.

Keri Denton described the “demand stimulation programme” that CD&S have been running to show businesses the advantages of using broadband but the need for this was contradicted by Cllr David Hall who said that when people hear that fibre broadband is coming they are very keen to get access to it.

BT said that they expect the final 7% of rural areas to be supplied, 5% by fixed wireless broadband and 2% by satellite and stated that BT are currently trialing "alternative technologies for the final 10%".......or should that now be the final 7%??

Rural areas of Devon & Somerset missed out on obtaining Defra (and possibly additional BDUK) funding because communities needed to know if they were in the final 10% before Defra would accept bids from them, and the NDA prevented CD&S from confirming if people are in the final 10%, Ian Thomas asked if BT’s definition of white areas on the CD&S Final Coverage Map meant that people in those areas should definitely conclude that they are in the final 10%? Keri Denton said “Yes”. This could be important since availability of the additional £250M funding (if it is real) may be conditional on being part of the final 10%. This is contradictory however since there are white areas on the CDS&S final coverage map which the CD&S exchange map says will get FTTC broadband!  (e.g. Churchinford)........ Known unknowns and unknown unknowns????

In answer to the question when will all BT’s survey work be completed so that everyone will know if they are or are not going to get publicly funded FTTC broadband, BT said “surveys will be finished 6 to 9 months before the end of 2016”.

 


The January 29 edition of the Midweek Herald carried a report of the January 16 TaFF meeting . Click on the image below for a larger copy:



Prior to the Jan16 meeting, the Chairman of the Broadband TaFF Scrutiny Panel kindly agreed to accept a paper from Graham Long, Upottery Parish Councillor, outlining the flaws in the CD&S/BT contract, before the meeting, since there is very little time on the agenda for public questions. 

Paper submission to Broadband TaFF, January 16, 2014

CD&S and BT like to call it a “partnership” but as far as I know there is no legal partnership entity involved. The £53M contract which CD&S placed with BT, one year ago, for rural broadband in the blue and white rural areas of the Final Coverage Map (now redefined as a “Guide”), remains cloaked by a Non Disclosure (gagging) Agreement, which was a BT requirement and which almost all UK County Councils have signed. Not so, in the case of EDDC and SSDC, I am glad to say. Red, urban areas, such as the towns/cities of Honiton, Taunton, Wellington and Exeter are where BT alone are funding fibre broadband implementation because population/property densities are high enough for them to achieve a commercial return on investment. At £53M, including £20M from Devon & Somerset County Councils, the CD&S procurement from BT is the single biggest publicly funded UK broadband contract (Ref 1).

BT seem to have a pathological hatred of committing to service availability dates which may stem from the fact that the lack of a good broadband service has been cited in successful lawsuits, for instance, against HMRC for non payment of VAT online (Ref 2). BT’s concern to maintain shareholder value in this situation is admirable for shareholders but they fail to recognise that customers (i.e. The Councils spending £53M of public money and their electorate) have an equal right to know what they are buying for their £53M investment and when they are likely to see a benefit from it.

The fact that pitifully low resolution maps have appeared on the CD&S website, making it very difficult to understand where you are on the map, one year into a 4 year contract, confirms this. It also indicates that CD&S, as BT’s customer, are not project managing the contract effectively and seem to be allowing the BT tail to wag the CD&S dog. We will never know of course because of the NDA, which it must be assumed, will be in place for the 4 year duration of the contract.

“Commercial confidentiality” is cited by BT and CD&S as the reason for the NDA but since the only other bidder (Fujitsu) pulled out long before the contract was signed, it is difficult to understand which of their competitors, BT are concerned may make use of their implementation data. Rural, private and commercial BT customers who desperately need to define their own plans for the next 4 years can only guess when they may get a fibre broadband service. In July 2013, Maria Miller MP at DCMS wrote to all Council CEO’s stating that roll out information should be in the public domain and citing Northamptonshire who have a much smaller budget per head of population for their contract with BT than do CD&S (£41.56 per head in Devon & Somerset compared to £5.94 per head in Northamptonshire, using Centre for Population Studies data and BDUK funding data, Ref 1). Even so, Northamptonshire published in November 2013, an implementation map (Ref 3) (tick the agree terms box, click the continue button and then zoom in on the map) which can be enlarged to street level. Northamptonshire signed their contract with BT two months later than CD&S. The letter from Maria Miller MP was obtained via a FOI request. (Ref 4).

The National Audit Office and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee have been highly critical of BT broadband contracts signed by County Councils, accusing BDUK and County Councils of mismanagement (Ref 5 & 6). A DCMS whistleblower, (subsequently sacked by DCMS), emailed Councils in 2012 with documentation indicating that BT inflate their costs for rural broadband contracts (Ref 7). The NDA, of course, prevents us from knowing if there is any truth in this.

The Final Coverage Map appeared on the CD&S website on September 20, after BT had been evaluating their own network for 9 months. This was 6 weeks after the closing date for communities and councils to apply directly for funds from BDUK to implement their own fast broadband solution. Had communities in white “hard to reach” areas known they were not likely to get FTTC broadband as a result of the £53M investment before July 2013, they may have applied for their own funding from BDUK. That door is now closed to them. An additional £20M of funding (for the whole UK) is available from the Rural Community Broadband Fund, but if a community or council does not know for sure if it is in a “hard to reach” area, such investment could be wasted if BT subsequently provide FTTC services in a hitherto white area. It has been suggested that a result of the paucity of BT/CD&S implementation data, BDUK funds may be withheld (Ref 8).  

Equally, rural businesses and taxpayers in the white areas may have to wait until the end of 2016 to know if they stand any chance at all of getting a FTTC broadband service funded by the £53M, supposedly dedicated to rural broadband. Rather than providing certainty, all that CD&S & BT are doing is continuing to fuel uncertainty for Devon & Somerset taxpayers for the next 3 years, because only minimal deployment information is being provided.

Yes, a new map appeared on the CD&S website in December listing exchanges which will offer FTTC broadband over the next three months, but in a project of this scale, it is reasonable to assume that the cables are already being put in place for these cabinets and thus BT have ensured they will not open themselves to lawsuits for late delivery as implementation in these locations proceeds.

Rightmove, the house selling website, already provides users with the ability to filter out properties that don’t have, or are not likely to get FTTC broadband and holiday booking websites allow users to filter out holiday accommodation which does not have fast broadband. A study by Cambridge Econometrics, funded by DCMS and published in November, demonstrates that for every £1 invested in broadband, the local economy grows by £20 (Ref 9). Rural areas already suffer from 50% less funding per head from central government. The CD&S/BT gagging order means that rural economies in white “hard to reach” areas are simply going to decline faster compared to their city, town and larger village neighbours. The digital divide in this country is real and is growing.

In my parish, Upottery, it appears that less than 10% of the population is set to see any  benefit from the CD&S, FTTC rural broadband project, being in a white “hard to reach” area. It is nonsense to describe Upottery parish as a “hard to reach” area since the parish straddles the A30/A303; the second major trunk route to the south west. The three exchanges serving Upottery’s population, (one of which is on the A303) are all larger than another exchange in a much more remote parish on Dartmoor; Princetown, which has a smaller exchange but is in a blue area which will offer FTTC broadband. Could it be that BT plan to provide fast broadband in each prisoner’s cell in Dartmoor Prison or are they using public funds to provide FTTP to HM Prison service? We can, of course, never know if there is any truth in this conjecture, because of the NDA gagging order.

We are all adults and we all know that dates in a project plan can change. If we had probabilities of what may happen and when, we can all do the appropriate maths and we could live with that. No one is expecting CD&S/BT to commit to a specific date, by property, but to be told that we have to wait until three months before a FTTC green cabinet may or may not appear close by is to treat the people of rural Devon and Somerset like children.

Rural businesses and communities are already suffering because of slow broadband but before CD&S suggest that their pilot satellite broadband project is the solution in white, “hard to reach” areas, please bear in mind that I now know more people who have installed this system and then had it removed, than I do people who are still using it. Yes, if all you want to do is stream films or football matches (which BT recently paid nearly £900M for the rights to) satellite is fine, but when you want to work/play interactively on line, the latency of the connection, which Europasat acknowledge can be as high as 1200mS (45mS is typical for ADSL copper), can make it all but unusable.

Businesses are required to complete HMRC returns interactively, on line. Farmers are required to submit livestock movement’s data on line and as taxpayers we all have a right to use applications such as Skype, online banking and on line shopping etc, which are all affected by the long latency times of satellite broadband. The fact that CD&S are only offering a satellite service as an alternative for the first 1050 customers to sign up in some white “hard to reach” areas indicates that the BT contract only permits public funding for this alternative system. We are not allowed to know if this is the case because of the NDA, but BT know full well that satellite broadband is no substitute for FTTC broadband (Ref 10) and they will be pleased to see the queue of people who have signed up for this system who will then switch to fibre when FTTC broadband does eventually reach them sometime after 2017 and perhaps after 2020. This is unacceptable.

Much cheaper, radio based, broadband technology has been around for years but CD&S do not fund it, presumably because it is likely that people who opt for such a system will stay with it even if FTTC broadband does become available and that would be a customer lost to BT. We can never know if only offering satellite broadband in white areas is a BT contractual requirement because the NDA prevents us knowing about it and those who have signed the NDA cannot tell their colleagues, their electorate or even their spouses about what they know.

BT is doing an excellent job protecting shareholder value, but they and CD&S are allowing the customer to suffer by doing so. As the private, de facto, monopoly telephone and broadband backbone network supplier in rural UK, BT are legally required to provide gateway access to private or community telephone/broadband providers. Such third party providers, be they offering cable, copper or wireless solutions (not publicly financed) will want to offer their products/services in so called “hard to reach” areas. By delaying as long as possible to commit to which areas are “hard to reach”, these are the only competitors BT and CD&S are keeping out of the market, and because the NDA gag prevents anyone from knowing what BT are planning, it could be conjectured that over the 4 years of the contract BT & CD&S will use knowledge of where third party providers may be operating to decide where they will provide FTTC broadband. Not only would this be a misuse of public funds, it is also anti-competitive and a misuse of BT’s monopoly position. By fuelling conjecture of this kind the NDA harms BT’s reputation as well as preventing proper oversight of public spending.

What must concern the TaFF panel is that CD&S, staffed by DCC and SCC employees seem to have acquiesced to BT’s demands all the way through and are still doing so. It appears that CD&S are not effectively managing their contract with BT to maximise taxpayer value. This is not a partnership, it is a simple customer - supplier relationship, but because of the NDA gagging order, accountability for public funds has been completely and effectively sidestepped. Likewise, taxpayers waiting to know whether or not they may get the benefit of FTTC broadband from public funds, can only guess what my happen over the next 3 years.

Graham Long

Upottery Parish Councillor

References:

(1)  https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Ah3sVRjT82kKdEltX0lJNjNVWWhNbjBnNGwxeHhqMHc#gid=0 (NB: This is a DCMS Google Docs spreadsheet)

(2)  http://www.hobbspayrollservices.com/blog/?p=2359

(3)  http://superfastnorthamptonshire.net/deployment-map-when-where/

(4)  https://sites.google.com/site/upotterywebsite/latest-news/faster-broadband-final-coverage-map-2017/maria-miller-mp-letter-to-chief-exec-s

(5)  http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240187486/NAO-slams-DCMS-for-slippage-of-broadband-scheme

(6)  http://br0kent3l3ph0n3.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/dcms-mismanaged-1-2bn-bduk-project-pac/

(7)  http://br0kent3l3ph0n3.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/dcms-sacks-bduk-whistleblower-over-bt-nga-price-leak/

(8)  http://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2013/08/gov-to-withhold-rural-broadband-funds-if-councils-do-not-release-data.html

(9)  http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/services/rural-broadband-worth-%C2%A346bn-report

(10)                http://www.muninetworks.org/content/satellite-access-internet-not-broadband


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Graham Long,
3 Feb 2014, 06:27
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