John Hart (DCC) answers questions on CDS broadband

At a meeting of the Blackdown Hills Parish Network, November 13, 2013, John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council answered the written question below with the written response which follows. John Osman, Leader of Somerset County Council had also agreed to attend and answer the same written questions, but he failed to appear and did not send a representative. (Readers can draw their own conclusions from this)

Written Question (from Graham Long, Upottery Parish Councillor):

Villages and parishes across the Blackdown Hills will have less than 10% of people getting access to CDS “Fibre To The Cabinet” broadband by 2017. Your target for this was 90%.

You are overseeing the spend of £53M of public money on this project.

Remote exchanges with fewer lines than any in the Blackdowns, will provide CDS funded FTTC broadband. For example: Princetown on Dartmoor will, whilst Upottery will not.

CDS only offer the expensive and inferior Europasat system in white no-fibre zones for 1050 properties across the whole of Devon & Somerset.

Does BT’s NDA still prevent you from sharing details of BT’s plans with us, 10 months after you signed the contract?

Will you instruct CDS to provide FTTC broadband to 90% of all Blackdown villages and parishes by 2017? If not, why not?

Why are CDS not subsidising better and cheaper alternatives to satellite broadband in the white zones?

Written Answer (from John Hart, Leader, Devon County Council):

  1. To be clear, our target is to provide improved broadband coverage to "superfast" speeds (24Mbps or above) to 90% of premises; i.e not 90% of the CDS geographical area [Devon & Somerset]. We have contracted with BT to provide 90.5% of premises with this level of service and are confident that we will achieve this; if not exceed this target by the end of the programme.
  2. The contract with BT seeks the best solutions that are possible within our funding envelope and we are working with BT to bring forward alternative technologies and the other 'infill' product range wherever possible. Satellite provides a credible alternative for residents and businesses who cannot wait for the CDS roll-out and the decision to take the alternative technology rests with the individual.
  3. There are particular undertakings which we have given under the terms of our contract to not divulge Commercially Sensitive Information. However, the main reason we do not wish to publish absolute information is that the roll out plan will inevitably change as survey work and detailed planning is completed. We would not want residents or businesses to rely on indicative information that might later need to change and impact on major decisions concerning their home or business location. regular updates on the roll out are given on the CDS website and as phases of the project become 'locked down', more detailed information will be released to the public.
  4. The roll-out plan has been engineered to make the best possible use of the funding available and for these technical reasons we cannot influence to the roll-out programme to meet such specific needs as this would inevitably introduce more costs that cannot be sustained by the programme. However we are working with BDUK to ensure that Devon and Somerset receives further funding through the £250M that the government is committed to providing to address the final gaps in rural connectivity. We expect to hear more soon from the BDUK team on the next steps to securing this further investment.

[It has since been learnt that the same written response was sent by John Osman to some parishes in Somerset together with appologies for his absence Nov 13th. It is believed that the above written response was crafted by Connecting Devon and Somerset for both Leaders to speak to - Ed]

Comments by Graham Long on John Hart's written answer:

Point 1:

Superfast has been defined by the EU (who provide some of the £53M CDS are spending) to mean >30Mbps. BT have quietly redefined Superfast as >24Mbps, but DCC/CDS/BDUK have failed to realise that this allows BT to provide 20% slower speeds in the UK compared to what is being considered as 'superfast' in the rest of Europe. Similarly, DCC/CDS have contracted with BT to provide 90% (or 90.5%) of premises across rural Devon and Somerset with 'superfast' FTTC broadband, but BT are doing this by providing 100% of premises with superfast broadband in the blue (urban) areas of the CDS map whilst providing 0% of premises with superfast broadband in the white (rural) areas of the CDS map. This enables BT to sell bandwidth to the larger populations in large villages and towns in Devon and Somerset whilst ignoring the needs of taxpayers in smaller villages. It redefines the CDS programme as an urban broadband programme and ignores the needs of rural communities. Some small villages, such as Princetown (with an exchange having 376 lines) but which happens to have a large potential BT customer next door (HM Prison, Dartmoor) will offer 'superfast' fibre broadband funded by CDS public funds, whilst larger, less remote villages such as Upottery on the A303 (with an exchange having 429 lines) will provide no 'superfast' fibre broadband. This demonstrates that, hidden from public scrutiny, BT are able to use CDS public funds to offer fibre broadband to customers who will buy large bandwidth from them (HM Prison Dartmoor) whilst ignoring rural customers who do not make as much of a contribution to BT's profit margin. This is mismanagement of public funds!

Point 2:

It is not necessary to “work with BT to bring forward alternative technologies to satellite” – they are already out there and available 'off the shelf' independent of BT and at lower cost. The problem however is that BT see such alternatives as competition to their goal of selling fibre broadband bandwidth. BT know that satellite is only a stop gap until customers get tired of the delay they experience when using broadband interactively, because of the inherent signal latency (delay) that satellite broadband cannot escape from, and which makes interactive broadband use, all but impossible. Community wireless broadband and 3G broadband are already available and are cheaper to install with lower monthly running costs than satellite, but if you install these systems now it is likely you will stay with them for the long term. By 'fixing' the CDS contract only to allow CDS to subsidise satellite as an alternative to fibre and to 'stitch up' the contract with a gagging (NDA) clause, BT know that the 1050 customers who take the satellite option now are not using a viable long term alternative to fibre and at some time in the future (post 2017) when BT may be able to get fibre (or an alternative technology) to them, they will be queuing up to ditch their satellite systems for BT fibre. (NB: CDS are only allowing 1050 customers across the whole of Devon and Somerset to have the inferior but subsidised, satellite broadband package)

Point 3:

It is normal to have all parties sign a Non Disclosure Agreement whilst a contract is being negotiated. It is abnormal for that contract to still be in place 10 months after the contract was signed in January 2013 and it will be even more abnormal for it to be in place 4 years afterwards (in 2017) by when all the £53M of public money will have been spent by BT. It is bizarre to claim that not releasing more detailed information about what is planned is to avoid people making decisions about their future based on data that might change............Let's get this straight...............No information is better than some information? People should make decisions about their future with no information even if there is some information available? This is a perverse logic. Maria Miller MP, Secretary of State at DCMS has stated that Councils should open up their broadband contracts with BT to public scrutiny and should not enter into Non Disclosure Agreements with BT. If John Hart thinks his constituents are not able to cope with this, then he treats us like fools. Don’t be surprised therefore if we act like fools and draw the only possible conclusion one can draw from the ongoing need for the NDA to remain in force. Namely, that BT and CDS have something to hide...Using public funds to provide superfast broadband only where BT’s profit is maximised perhaps?....Using public funds to redesign BT’s infrastructure and maximise profits by turning the programme into an urban broadband programme, rather than providing rural broadband?............................. What else is there for us fools to conclude?

Point 4:

Having signed the contract with BT in January 2013, in a one horse (BT) race, £53M has been handed over to BT who are then deciding how it is to be spent. If John Hart & DCC cannot influence the roll out of the programme, then there is no oversight of the £53M of public funds invested by CDS in BT and there is nothing to prevent BT putting the needs of their shareholders ahead of the needs of the rural communities, the £53M is supposed to have been invested for. The National Audit Office and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee have both slated the BDUK/Local Authority contracts with BT for the mismanagement of public funds and the CDS contract with BT is no exception to this criticism. CDS are overseeing the largest single contract out of the 26 that have already been awarded to BT but in light of the NAO and Select Committee criticism it should be subject to much closer scrutiny, not less, but the BT lawyers who persuaded the numerous Councils like DCC & SCC to sign BT’s NDA have very effectively prevented these 26 such contracts from being examined in public view. Like so many civil service run IT projects that have already ended up as disasters, costing the public purse much more than was intended (e.g Fire Control Centres, NHS IT Systems, Dept of Work and Pensions Universal Credit System etc etc etc), the BDUK/Local Authority rural broadband contracts with BT have all the makings of joining that long list. This is certainly the case for those of us who live in rural Devon and Somerset and who stand to gain nothing from the investment of £53M of our tax monies.

What do you think of John Hart's answers above and this criticism of them?

Please email your comments to and your comments will be added to this page.

And don't forget to sign our on-line petition to get 'superfast' fibre broadband in ALL Devon and Somerset villages.

Don't let the Blackdown Hills become a broadband black hole!

Comments from readers:

Having read the comments by Graham Long on John Hart's written answer. I would be inclined to be stronger in respect of the need for transparency of the whole process, role out programme and expenditure. As elected members of the Council, the current obfuscation indicates a degree of arrogance and lack of respect for the public/interested parties/voters. I agree that it is impossible to understand how 'no information' can be better than some information ' - John Harts explanation is more obfuscation, however, Point 3 probably needs to be revised to remove some of the sense of emotion and subjective comment. - Tim Pitcher.