The scenario - you decide to blanket cover the UK with a project to offer a basic service, and where feasible for the size of money pot go a lot faster, and then you try to appease small business by offer a much smaller pot that has to somehow squeeze in around the much larger projects? That is the basic reality of the Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) and while some anger can be directed at BT management for the promises they make on coverage those in power than created this subsidy pyramid with overlapping projects when all along they knew that EU State Aid rules forbid this are the ones with questions to answer.
The news is that two projects that were looking for RCBF funding to help assist their scheme have been rejected, the largest was Cotswold Broadband that was aiming to provide FTTP to 90% of homes around Chipping Norton i.e. a rollout to around 5,000 properties. The news broke on Tuesday afternoon and was covered by the BBC, but there is still a glimmer of hope as on twitter @cotswoldsbb is saying they are still in the game and thus still seeking investors to underpin the roll-out.
If there is any one factor behind the decision by Oxfordshire County Council it will not be the sweet talking of Bill Murphy from BT, but the simple fact they can look at the roll-out Openreach has done in the commercial areas and also those areas like Northern Ireland and Cornwall where rural areas have benefited from improvements to their broadband coverage. Of course this being the UK, we prefer to support the underdog and there in lies another reason, it is not uncommon for entrepreneurs to have many failures in business and the risk of total failure by employing BT to cover areas is probably seen as minimal.
Is BT cheating? Well in Oxfordshire it has signed the contract and is putting in £11m compared to the £14m of subsidy (56%). Others claim to be able to roll-out with less subsidy, but for Councillors who will have 'avoid risk' signs at every corner the higher subsidy to BT for a full county wide project may see the better bet. A lot depends on the precise wording of the contract, i.e. if to meet stated coverage targets the risk of extra expenditure falls solely on BT then after the sums wasted in South Yorkshire on Digital Region one can see the appeal of the more mediocre safe hands approach.
One trick up the BT sleeve that is often missed is that the FTTC roll-out is delivering some native FTTP, at lower levels than Cornwall but with the Fibre on Demand (FTTP) option the ability for councils to target the SME market will exist and the network build for FTTC means that FTTP infrastructure is generally in a pavement chamber (aggregation node) close to the green street cabinet. This means expansion to push fibre closer to the premises e.g. G.FAST or maybe even full FTTP become economically or politically expedient it can be done.
The message seems clear, never bank on subsidy from central or local Government, a change in the wind or political direction can see plans thrown out of the door. Every firm, community or single person trying to deliver better broadband is convinced their solution is best and a lot of the time for those specific circumstances it is, the problem is that what works in own place does not always immediately translate to another.