North Skye Broadband backs out over State Aid problems
18 months of frustration and effort by North Skye Broadband and the hopes of a full fibre community network appear to be dashed for those on the Isle of Skye that were not likely to see VDSL2/FTTC via the BT/Scottish Government projects.
A press release from North Skye Broadband cites that it will no longer be progressing an application for State Aid from BDUK and Community Broadband Scotland. The complexity of having already having to undertake two consultations and reported difficulties with the Open Market Review where North Skye Broadband say that time was wasted waiting for more accurate information existing plans with apparently many postcodes with 30 to 40% error rates.
NSB has, from the very start, planned for this to be a community-owned network, broadly following the approach taken by Broadband for the Rural North, a very successful community benefit society operating in the North of England. By minimising costs and utilising community resources wherever possible – including, for example, seeking free wayleaves from landowners to lay high-capacity optical fibre across their land to establish the long-distance “backbone” network – NSB is seeking to narrow the “digital divide” caused by operators only offering high-speed broadband in denser urban areas and ignoring the needs of fragile rural communities, where many residents and businesses only have the choice of inferior broadband via obsolete technologies, or (often) no Internet connection at all.
It has been clear to NSB throughout that a wireless-based trunk network is wholly inappropriate for our needs. Not only does the harsh environment on Skye present challenges to the erection of masts and aerials, but HIE’s own figures demonstrate that even if such a scheme can be profitable, the business case simply does not generate sufficient surplus revenue to finance the technology refresh that will inevitably be needed to meet the everincreasing demand for bandwidth. The existing State Aid schemes are not fit for purpose because they are designed to support the provision of as many wireless networks as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible.
The State Aid rules also require that such networks should be “future-proof”, but in our opinion they are clearly anything but. Ironically, until the Chancellor’s 2016 Autumn Statement and the establishment of the Digital Infrastructure Fund, BDUK would not approve any State Aid application that specified optical fibre as the network medium. Now, they are crying out for commercial providers to build fibre networks, but continue to refuse to fund community-owned networks.Geoff Semler, Chair of NSB (North Skye Broadband)
The final paragraph is a little odd, since full fibre operator Gigaclear has now won a number of local authority contracts under the BDUK umbrella and in Scotland even BT has areas lined up for full fibre (GEA-FTTP) roll-out as part of the two projects running in Scotland.
The battle between commercial and community operators thus seems set to continue, the rules around State Aid are incredibly frustrating for the community operators, but many decades of public procurement scandals across many countries are what has produced them, and they exist to try and avoid the creation of white elephant projects that line a few peoples pockets with profits. The downside is that it makes applying for Government funding more complex and can add to the overall cost of a project.
All is not lost there are hints of a small 50 premise demonstrator network which is in the planning stages and is advancing in co-operation with a private sector partner, so in time this may bear fruit and might even be used to make the case for public money to expand further.
B4RN is the community broadband scheme that many aim to emulate and they have been incredibly successful but reproducing this is likely to reliant on getting a core of people as dedicated as Chris Conder and Barry Forde who will work hard to overcome obstacles and are able to win over lots of community support. Perhaps a key component is that while frustration is often sounded at the lack of public money to help them, they've never let that stop them and have ploughed on.
Our maps show the problems facing those on the Isle of Skye (orange under USO, red, yellow, green are VDSL2 speeds) in that while VDSL2/FTTC is arriving in the more populated areas that there are many postcodes with premises that are still under 10 Mbps (and most of these are under 2 Mbps too) for fixed line services.
Satellite broadband does fill a gap in the broadband circle but as usage levels increase it is becoming more expensive to use, or restrictive, in time once low earth orbit (LEO) clusters are in place and operational this may improve since the lower orbit will mean much better latency and bandwidth availability may improve, but for people wanting better broadband yesterday saying something is on the way is unlikely to calm people down.