National telecoms firm BT has been chosen as the preferred bidder for South Gloucestershire Council’s (SGC’s) state-aided broadband improvement project which promises to bring superfast connection speeds to 90% of the district by 2015.
BT was selected in preference to the only other bidder, Fujitsu, a firm which has yet to win any of the contracts being offered by Councils around the country under the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) framework.
SGC, which is putting £2.2m of its own money into the project, says it aims to award the contract in early December, when further details will be made available.
The news suggests that the project is running around six months behind schedule, judged by timescales presented to a Cabinet meeting in February, which anticipated the contract being awarded in “summer 2012”. The same report anticipated that “infrastructure and civil work” would begin in “winter 2012” and the rollout would be complete by April 2015.
The state-aided BDUK project is intended to cover the gaps left by the commercial rollout of standard and superfast broadband but the locations and extents of the areas that will require state subsidy are still unclear because SGC has refused to publish the results of its provider survey conducted earlier this year.
Assuming that BT fails to include the Almondsbury exchange in its commercial rollout that is due to be completed by spring 2013, The Journal estimates that around 4,000 homes of the 9,000 homes in Bradley Stoke will be eligible for inclusion in the state-aided investment programme. Of these, around 2,000 are thought to be currently receiving connection speeds below 2Mbps, the so-called “standard” level which the government has deemed as the minimum acceptable.
It is estimated that the commercial rollout of superfast broadband (faster than 24Mbps) will reach 82% of the premises in South Gloucestershire. The Council will therefore shortly have to decide which of the remaining 18% are to get “superfast” speeds with aid from the state, leaving the remainder to languish in the slow lane of “standard” broadband for the foreseeable future.
Last month’s launch of 4G mobile broadband in the Bristol area by EE gives at least some hope to those living in Bradley Stoke’s broadband “slow spots”, although tariffs are expensive and connection speeds are likely to drop once bandwidth demand increases as mobile phone users upgrade to 4G-capable handsets.
Mobile operator EE (formed following a merger of Orange and T-Mobile) is currently offering 4G dongle or MiFi solutions from £15.99/month, with a one-off cost of £49.99 and a 2GB monthly data allowance.
Ofcom says it expects average 4G download speeds to be around 6 Mbps.
BT has previously come under criticism from Councillors and residents in Bradley Stoke for failing to invest its own money in the town’s telecommunications infrastructure despite there being a proven demand for better services. BT’s own nationwide Race to Infinity survey conducted in late 2010 to measure the demand for superfast fibre optic broadband saw the Almondsbury exchange ranked 19th in the country, out of nearly 2,500 eligible exchanges. However, the exchange has been overlooked in every subsequent upgrade announcement made by the company.
The latest slap in the face came in October when it was announced that the Thornbury exchange is to be upgraded, despite its subscribers demonstrating barely one-quarter of the demand shown at Almondsbury.
Inclusion of an exchange in BT’s upgrade programme does not. however, mean that everyone in its area of coverage will be able to receive the new superfast service. The Filton exchange, which serves 0117 numbers in Bradley Stoke, was selected for upgrade in April 2011 but The Journal has not yet heard of a single customer in Bradley Stoke who has managed to have the service installed.
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.
Industry observers point out that BT has ignored the results of its own customer demand survey, preferring instead to invest its own money in areas where Virgin Media already provides a near-100% geographical coverage of potentially superfast cable broadband, in anticipation that it would win state-aided BDUK contracts in other areas where there is little or no competition from Virgin.
Virgin Media itself is unable to bid for BDUK projects because its network is not open to other ISPs on a wholesale basis, which is a requirement of EU state aid rules.
Related link: Better Broadband Campaign (The Journal)
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