Wednesday, February 19, 2014

News: Councils set to intervene in South Yorkshire's broadband network again

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Local authorities are set to lead on a project that aims to achieve 95% superfast broadband coverage in South Yorkshire by 2017, despite their involvement in the "deeply flawed" Digital Region project.

The aim of the Digital Region project was to bring continuous 25mb+ broadband to over 97% of South Yorkshire, including 550,000 homes and 1.3 million people. Work on installing the network started in 2009, and by 2012, completion of phase one of the project saw 80% of homes and businesses within South Yorkshire able to be linked to the network.

The £90m project includes £30m from the European Regional Development Fund and the project was wholly owned by the now defunct Yorkshire Forward and the four local authorities of South Yorkshire.

Last year the remaining shareholders agreed to halt their search for a private sector partner and begin a managed closure of the fibre optic network. It is expected to be decommissioned by August 2014.

Now consultation is underway for a "Superfast broadband project to deliver improved broadband infrastructure to areas where it is acknowledged that the market is unlikely to deliver Superfast broadband and will likely remain so until 2017."

Partners believe that broadband connectivity is essential for building a strong and competitive economy resulting in economic growth and creating more and better jobs.

Developed by a partnership with the leadership of the four partners' authorities in South Yorkshire, alongside the support of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, the plan has been approved by BDUK, the government project with the goal of delivering a fibre point in every community in the UK by the end of 2015.

The BDUK Framework is based on a gap funded subsidy approach, where the private sector invests alongside a public subsidy to provide broadband to areas where there is not otherwise a viable commercial market. BDUK is providing £530m of funding to a number of projects across the UK and had originally ruled out funding South Yorkshire due to the Digital Region project that had similar aims.

The new South Yorkshire project will procure a private sector company to deliver the network to these "white areas" that do not have access to next generation (fibre optic) broadband. BT and Fujitsu are in the running (but is more likely to be BT).

Broadband suppliers are now being contacted regarding their current and future plans for South Yorkshire so that target areas can be established. Almost 80% of residential and business premises in the region will have access to next generation broadband in the next three years by way of commercial activity already undertaken or planned by operators.

The remaining 20% of South Yorkshire will form the next generation broadband intervention area of the project with around 2% (mostly rural areas) to form the basic broadband intervention area of the project.

Last year, the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise, Michael Fallon, described the Digital Region project as "deeply flawed" as it had failed to attract customers. It was also revealed that the government would have to provide at least 45% of the funding to cover a significant proportion of the repayment of the European Regional Development Fund grant which has to be paid back to Brussels, because the original conditions were not fulfilled. It will also pay a proportion of the contract due to the original operator, Thales.

What will happen to the physical Digital Region network after its closure is not yet known.

Images: BT Openreach

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