Durham UK Council Prep Phase 3 Superfast Broadband Rollout

optical fibre exchange openreach

The £34m+ Digital Durham project, which has so far worked with Openreach (BT) to help increase the coverage of FTTC and FTTP based “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) ISP networks to around 96% of local premises, is preparing to tender for a third contract to further extend coverage (starting in 2020).

The original Phase 1 contract was completed in 2016 (here) and this was followed by an on-going Phase 2 Superfast Extension Programme (SEP) with Openreach, which is working to reach around an additional 25,000 premises or 97% coverage of superfast broadband (they’re close to achieving this, albeit later than the original completion target of September 2018).

However the Durham County Council now plans to follow this up with a Phase 3 roll-out, which would aim to tackle the remaining homes and businesses that are still unable to access superfast speeds. The new contract will also adopt the revised “superfast” speed definition of 30Mbps+ (common for all recent contracts).

At this point things start to get a bit confusing. The new consultation (credits to Phil for spotting) suggests that around 29,592 premises (white premises) may be in need of public funding in order to help them access a faster network, although another council document from earlier in the year puts this at c.20,000 (here) and then another one talks about a figure of 5,000 (here).

In terms of funding, there’s talk of using a £2,500 cost per premises subsidy (up from the original programme’s £1,700) and that would get us to around £12.5m, although they believe £13m would be needed to actually deliver 5,000 premises and achieve nearly 100% (universal) coverage of superfast broadband. One problem is that they’re a bit short of this figure.

Potential Funding (Feb 2019 Document)

Subject to approvals from the Digital Durham Strategic board, partner councils and external funding bodies, there could be £10.7 million to extend superfast broadband coverage further. This consists of:

– County Durham – Potential for additional £1.1m funding from EAFRD Rural Broadband Fund.

– Underspend from Contract 1 of up to £7m.

– Unused Basic Broadband (infill funding) of up to £596,000.

– Potential Contract 1 gainshare (underwrite/loan) of up to £2m – pending decision.

NOTE: Estimating accurate costs is difficult at this stage and funding is not yet tied down. Of the above £10.7m, only £8m can actually be spent directly within County Durham. But the new consultation says “In total public funding of up to £12.21m may be committed via the forthcoming procurement” *shrug*.

Interestingly the earlier February 2019 meeting said, “Whilst fibre optic cabling is regarded as most desirable and future proof, due to its speed/capacity and reliability, wireless networks can also deliver broadband at gigabit speeds and will be considered for Contract 3. Current 4G mobile phone networks can deliver lower speed broadband and will be considered for premises without access to either fibre optic or wireless.”

One potential caveat here is that the Government’s Building Digital UK (formerly Broadband Delivery UK) programme tends to now only approve such contracts if they’re dominated by ultrafast “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband builds, which may hamper the possibility of harnessing slower wireless or hybrid fibre FTTC solutions. In addition, with the right spectrum / capacity and technology, 4G can in fact do Gigabit speeds, albeit not very realistic in the real-world from primary mobile operators in rural areas.

The current consultation will be open until Monday 10th June 2019 and if all goes well then an Invitation to Tender (ITT) could be issued later in 2019, which means that the deployment would probably begin sometime in 2020.

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