Northumberland’s £1m Voucher Scheme to Boost Superfast Broadband

openreach 2017 rural telegraph pole engineer

The Northumberland County Council in England has approved a new voucher scheme, which is designed to help alternative network (AltNet) ISPs to Openreach (BT) to access public funding in order to roll-out “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) to premises that have not been covered by the existing project (i.e. rural areas).

Sadly the existing iNorthumberland project, which is working alongside Openreach (BT) and the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme, is running behind schedule on their target to help make “superfast broadband” capable FTTC and a few ultrafast FTTP networks available to “over” 95% of the county by the end of 2018 (Thinkbroadband‘s database estimates they’re at 93.79% today).

The local authority was also impacted after Virgin Media’s decision last year to halt plans for extending their ultrafast cable broadband and TV network into the county (here). In fairness, this would have been focused more on urban areas and is thus unlikely to have made much of an impact upon overall coverage (i.e. deploying into areas where superfast speeds already exist).

Meanwhile the council has made a further £2.2m available (mainly from savings within the first roll-out contract) to help bring superfast broadband to some of the most difficult to reach communities in the county. Some £2m of this has been allocated to help Openreach extend their network and “there are currently over 50 communities being taken through the process to receive full fibre services which otherwise would have been excluded.” (it’s hoped that this could push superfast coverage to 95-96% of premises).

The remaining £200,000 has thus been earmarked for situations where Openreach cannot provide a quote under the fund criteria, which will instead make it available to alternative network providers as part of a voucher scheme. If necessary, this funding could also be boosted to £1m (depending upon demand).

Council Statement

It is recommended that this £200,000 allocation is allocated via a voucher scheme rather than via a single procurement, or series of small scale procurements. Further funds are available through the iNorthumberland programme from a range of sources including clawback from the first contract and further ‘gainshare’ funding from high levels of take up.

The terms of the contract mean some of this funding is ring fenced for use with Openreach, but some can be used with other suppliers. It is therefore recommended that if this scheme experiences high demand and the initial £200,000 is utilised that further funds be made available from one of these existing budgets to extend the voucher scheme up to a total maximum value of £1m.

The new scheme has been designed to fit between the Government’s existing Better Broadband Subsidy Scheme (up to £350 a pop) and their Gigabit Connection Vouchers (up to £2,500 a pop). As such it will aim to award vouchers worth up to £1,000 per property to individual residents or businesses in order to help them get a superfast (30Mbps+ capable – EU definition) connection installed.

The vouchers will be technology agnostic (i.e. can be delivered via any type of connection), although they’ve made clear that wherever possible the aim should be to foster “full fibre” (FTTP) connectivity. This scheme would also be aimed at residents and businesses unable to access broadband speeds of 15Mbps or above. Areas that are already part of a future fibre-based roll-out plan will not be eligible.

On top of that the council has said they won’t just approve any old cowboy supplier or reseller for the scheme. As such they’ve set a number of additional eligibility criteria for ISPs. For example, suppliers will need to be registered for current BDUK subsidies, have £5m of public liability insurance, support Ofcom’s ADR dispute resolution scheme and be a UK limited company + VAT registered etc. Further Details Here.

One obvious problem with all this is that £1m will not be even remotely enough to reach every property in the final 4-5% of premises. The forthcoming 10Mbps+ broadband USO might be of some help here, although the council has said that they’re continuing to lobby the Government for more funding.

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