Is further superfast roll-out in Cumbria at a deadlock stage?
Cumbria is a long way from being the only county where people are waiting on news about further superfast broadband roll-outs. The history of the BDUK gap funded roll-outs was that the original phase one projects were generally large and designed to push the overall result in counties to 90% covering peri-urban and easy rural areas, the smaller phase two projects invariably aimed for 95% and pushed more into the rural heartlands but subsequent to this with a lack of firm targets a number of county areas appear to be behind the curve on announcing additional blocks of a few thousand premises from the gainshare and effeciency savings and thus most of the areas left are what everyone easily calls a rural area.
One area that has popped into our inbox has been the plight of Hayton to the east of Carlisle, but if you look at the maps at the end of this article it is easy to spot many other areas of Cumbria that could do with extra work. The MP for the constituency of Penrith and The Border, Rory Stewart has we are told been pushing for a number of areas including Hayton to benefit from extra roll-out using money from the savings made in the first project, unfortunately it appears that that things have stalled, and while the need for more roll-out was identified in April 2017, the back and forth between council, BT and BDUK has meant nothing has happened yet.
Looking at the situation in Hayton specifically cabinet 3 one of the problems is likely to be that delivering a VDSL2 cabinet alone would help some, but the area the existing copper cabinet covers is going to need FTTP to get the majority into a safe superfast region and it may be that the intervention cost is too high, or given the number of other potential areas across Cumbria that would benefit that this cabinet is a long way day the list.
One danger of the Universal Service Obligation that we have worried about in the past is that as the work to uplift premises to above the 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up criteria is likely to be funded by an industry levy that some local authorities may be considering holding back from much more superfast delivery via the BDUK mechnanisms with the aim of eventually recovering some of their original investment.
Another red flag for increasing the superfast footprint in the rural parts of many areas is that the push for full fibre has BT focusing on commercial roll-outs again and while we know some of their commercial competitors would love BT Group and Openreach to solely focus on the rural issue to meet the increased pressure on full fibre and deliver 3 million premises of FTTP before the end of 2021 is going to mean roll-outs will be largely dense urban areas. One factor often overlooked is that as the civils firms get busier with the urban roll-outs the costs for additional work in rural areas may increase due to supply and demand issues around the labour force needed.
The reality across the district council areas that comprise Cumbria is best expressed in a series of maps, each area on the five maps below is a census output area which are sized by ONS to generally cover 150 premises, so urban areas such as Carlisle end up holding lots of different areas and the rural less densely populated areas cover a larger area.
The constituency of Penrith and the Border seems to be unlucky due to the quirks of how the boundaries are arranged and has just 80% superfast coverage and over 16% of premises only with access to speeds of 15 Mbps or slower, which is some 6,500 premises, the number below superfast is higher at 7,850 premises.
Areas such as Scotland and Wales are in theory solving the problem by pushing on with the superfast roll-outs with contracts in the procurement process aiming 100%, but no contracts have been signed for these yet and in the case of Scotland the intervention cost looks to be well beyond what was generally seen in the phase 1 and phase 2 projects and there have been warnings that even more money may be needed in the case of Scotland.
If the intervention costs in Penrith and the Border turn out to be similar to the funding that Scotland and its R100 project is planning for the southern intervention area which the constituency is next door to, delivering 100% superfast coverage would need a project of some £39 million which would exceed the around £20 million from Westminster spent on the BDUK contracts in the area so far.
The BDUK delivery in Cumbria is still delivering phase two cabinets, so we can expect the maps above to change still. Our counting of superfast premises delivered in Cumbria via the BDUK process is at 115,337 as of 27th June 2018.
Correction Friday 6th July: The Eden District Council map was missed out from the list of council areas plotted by the census output area and has now been added.