The Almondsbury telephone exchange, which serves much of Bradley Stoke, has once again been overlooked in the latest round of superfast broadband upgrades announced by BT this week.
Almondsbury failed to figure in a list of 98 exchanges that constitutes ‘phase 10’ of BT Openreach’s commercial rollout which promises to cover two thirds of the UK by 2014.
With the company’s rolling announcement programme soon coming to an end (only one or two further lists will be published, and those before the end of the year, according to ZDnet UK) it is looking increasingly likely that the town will have to be dependent on state aid for its much needed broadband infrastructure improvements.
South Gloucestershire Council (SGC) has pledged to invest £2.2m, on top of £710k from central government, to improve broadband speeds in areas of the district that will no receive investment from commercial suppliers. A project plan published in February stated that a tendering process for telecommunications suppliers would commence in “spring 2012” and work would begin in “winter 2012” but recent press coverage suggests that the Council’s timescale has already slipped.
According to the Bristol Post, the South Gloucestershire project, together others around the country that are being organised under a national framework agreement, is being held up by delays in getting the necessary EU state aid approval.
The Journal understands that the framework agreement names two approved suppliers, believed to be BT and Fujitsu, as the only companies permitted to tender for council contracts, although both will be permitted to sub-contract work to other suppliers. Under EU rules, Virgin Media is not eligible for state aid because its cable network is not open to other Internet Service Providers.
In a letter to Councillors seen by The Journal, Dave Perry, SGC’s Deputy Chief Executive, says:
“South Gloucestershire Council in partnership with Wiltshire and Swindon Councils is one of four lead projects that will be first in the UK to use this framework contract once it is signed by the two suppliers. We are fully prepared to launch our procurement once the framework agreement has been signed. We have been engaging with both suppliers since March to ensure they are fully prepared for our tender launch so that rapid progress can be made to complete the procurement process.”
A spokesperson at the Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told The Journal:
“We are working with the [European] Commission to finalise agreement on state aid.”
“We are confident the vast majority of councils will meet our timetable and complete procurement by the end of the year.”
Around 4,000 homes in Bradley Stoke are thought to suffer from sub-standard broadband speeds because they are not served by Virgin Media’s cable network and are too away far from the two BT telephone exchanges that serve the town.
Subscribers on 0117 numbers, served from Filton, are theoretically able to access superfast broadband after that exchange was upgraded earlier this year but many Bradley Stoke residents report that they have been unable to obtain the new service.
A national poll to gauge demand for superfast broadband, organised by BT in winter 2010, saw Almondsbury finish in 19th position (from 2,495 eligible exchanges) but the company has so far chosen to ignore the findings of its own customer research.
Virgin Media has stated that it would be “uneconomical” to expand its cable network in the town and has instead focussed it efforts on increasing connection speeds to existing subscribers.
One local resident became so frustrated at the lack of progress in delivering broadband speed improvements to the town that he recently paid BT around £5,000 to install a leased line to his property in Crystal Way.
A suggestion from Bradley Stoke Town Councillor Tom Aditya that “a working party be set up to look at other broadband options for the town” was given a cool reception at last month’s meeting of the Town Council’s Planning Committee. In response, Committee Chair Cllr Rob Jones commented that he felt, from a Town Council perspective, there was nothing more that could be done for now.
Pleas from The Journal’s Editor that SGC should engage with Town and Parish Councils, community groups and local “broadband champions”, with a view to considering options for additional local funding for broadband infrastructure investment have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Photo: Bradley Stoke Town Councillors and local MP Jack Lopresti discuss the town’s broadband problems with Communications Minister Ed Vaizey in August 2010.
Related link: Campaign for Better Broadband (The Journal)
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