Liberal Democrats’ broadband meeting hears from BT and Virgin

Liberal Democrats broadband meeting in Bradley Stoke

Representatives from the Bradley Stoke Journal recently attended a meeting organised by South Gloucestershire Liberal Democrats to discuss the state of play in the campaign to bring faster broadband to our town.

The meeting, attended by representatives from telecoms giants BT and Virgin Media, was organised to demonstrate the Lib Dems’ manifesto commitment to “work with all South Gloucestershire residents to progress the issues that matter to you”.

Also at the meeting were two local Lib Dem MPs: Steve Webb (Minister for Pensions) and Don Foster (Chair of the Lib Dem Committee for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport), Cllr Ruth Davis (Leader of South Gloucestershire Lib Dem Group), Cllr Jon Williams and local Lib Dem campaigner Sachin Singhal.

The meeting, on 19th March, came two weeks after  Bradley Stoke  had once again been wheeled out into the media spotlight as an extreme example of an area where broadband speeds come nowhere near to the “up to” speeds touted by providers in their product advertising.

The Journal’s Editor kicked off the meeting with a overview of the local effort in last year’s BT Race to Infinity competition, which saw the Almondsbury exchange finish in a creditable 19th place (from 2,495 eligible exchanges). That result was short of a top five placing (since extended to the ten top) that would have guaranteed a prompt upgrade to superfast fibre optic broadband for the exchange’s area of coverage.

Hopes had been high that the level of demand demonstrated in the competition would lead to the exchange featuring sooner rather than later in BT’s phased rollout of its Infinity product to the two-thirds of the country deemed commericially viable.

However, those hopes were dashed when a BT media release given to BBC Radio Bristol on 2nd March suggested that Bradley Stoke had been categorised as being within the so-called “final third” of the country that the industry insists will require public sector subsidy.

The document also revealed that BT is in discussions with various local Councils (including South Gloucestershire Council) “to find ways to bring fibre broadband to … areas such as Bradley Stoke”. [Ed: Take that to mean trying to get money out of the Government and local Councils before agreeing to do the job.]

A few days later, on 8th March, the Government announced that it was making £50m available to local authorities in an effort to kick-start the installation of superfast broadband across 800,000 homes and premises in the UK. The money is to be allocated by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the body set up to help arrange investment into broadband, from the £530m which the Government intends to spend over the next four years.

Local authorities wishing to bid for a share of the £50m are required to submit their bid, in the form of a Local Broadband Plan, by 18th April. Successful bids will then be announced on 27th May.

When The Journal asked South Gloucestershire Council about their discussions with BT or any other potential suppliers, we were told:

“BT recently gave a presentation to the council leader and chief executive with regard to the potential rollout of superfast broadband across the district. This was arranged by the local MP who has supported a campaign to get faster broadband speeds across his constituency.”

“South Gloucestershire Council is discussing opportunities to work together with Bristol City Council to commence the bidding process for money from a central Government fund designed to pump-prime the rollout of superfast broadband. This is at an extremely early stage and no decisions have been made on a potential supplier.”

Don Foster told the meeting that superfast broadband (which he defined as 25Mbps or greater) is already available to around 50% of the country but that take up of the highest speed packages is very low, at 0.5%. The private sector is only likely to fund further expansion if the demand for superfast speeds increases and he singled out the YouView on-demand TV system, due for release in January 2012, as something that could stimulate the market.

Local Lib Dem campaigner Sachin Singhal highlighted to the meeting how the slow broadband speeds in our town prevent people from working from home, with a Journal representative adding that students at Bradley Stoke Community School were expected to access homework material online, which “could be a struggle”.

BT representative Andy Lee had little concrete news for the town, although he expressed surprise at the suggestion (by his company’s own PR department) that Bradley Stoke might belong in the “final third”. He saw the good result for the Almondsbury exchange in the Race to Infinity as a positive but was unable to guarantee that this would improve the chances of the exchange being upgraded.

A less optimistic note, however, had been sounded in a letter from BT’s Michael Prescott to Government Minister Ed Vaizey on 7th September 2010, which states that “some form of public sector funding will be needed in order to make it commercially viable for superfast broadband to be provided [to areas like Bradley Stoke]”. The letter was in response to a letter sent by Mr Vaizey following his meeting with Jack Lopresti MP and a delegation of Bradley Stoke Town Councillors in August 2010.

Rob Reeves of Virgin Media also brought little cheer when he told the meeting:

“At the moment it is not economically viable [for Virgin] to deliver to more premises [in Bradley Stoke] by digging up the streets.”

The only hope would be if Virgin were allowed to use existing ducts and poles owned by other utilities (such as BT), which Don Foster confirmed “was going to happen”, although recent media reports suggest that BT’s proposed charges for use of its infrastructure are considered prohibitive by its competitors.

At the end of the meeting, Steve Webb MP was actioned to encourage South Gloucestershire Council to submit a funding bid to BDUK and to write to BT and Virgin to highlight the issues faced by residents and businesses in the district.

Photo: (L-R) Steve Webb MP, Rob Reeves (Virgin Media), Andy Lee (BT Openreach), Cllr Jon Williams, Sachin Singhal, Cllr Ruth Davis, Don Foster MP.

Related link: Bradley Stoke Broadband Campaign (The Journal)

The Journal comments

This was a useful meeting with an impressive line up of attendees. With £530m of Government money on offer, it is perhaps not surprising that BT and Virgin seem unprepared to invest their own cash to resolve Bradley Stoke’s broadband problems, although neither company has yet given a convincing argument as to why a densly populated suburb with a young internet-savy  population should not be commercially viable.

A South Gloucestershire-wide bid for BDUK funding seems to be the only way forward at the moment, although the danger with this is that more rural areas are likely to be given priority and the funding could run out before South Gloucestershire gets a look in.

Thanks go to South Gloucestershire Liberal Democrats for facilitating the meeting and to Tesco Extra Bradley Stoke and the Willow Brook Centre for providing the rooms.

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  1. Good write up, SH.

    I’m starting to think the only way anybody is going to quickly get fast broadband around here is to move house. And that’s a really big shame for the town if others are thinking this way.

    BT’s inaction on this issue, though, is unforgivable in my eyes. They have a whole group of hundreds of houses they could make a fortune from … but they keep ignoring us.

  2. I see that as usual BT’s left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Not only did the BT guy not know about his own company’s PR department’s “final third” comments but he also seemed to not know about today’s announcement of the Filton upgrade. Doesn’t fill me with confidence that the right man was at the meeting.

  3. Interesting comment RE Virgin “digging up the streets”.

    My street, Saxon Way, is not a cable area. It does however, have CATV ducts. When I enquired about these to Virgin they checked their database and confirmed that there was no cable present. When asked whether they would cable it, bearing in myind they wouldn’t have to “dig up the streets”, their answer was an emphatic no.

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