Friday, August 8, 2014

News: Rotherham funding approved for BT broadband contract

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Councillors have made assurances that Rotherham will get a good deal out of the new £22m superfast broadband project after their decision to approve up front funding came under further scrutiny.

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 (LEP), the plan is set to enable 97.9% of South Yorkshire to have access to fibre broadband by the end of 2017.

Like other local authorities, Rotherham Council has agreed to underwrite the required local funding contribution of £1.596m in order to allow a contract to be signed with BT in August. It is also set to contribute a contingency budget of £124,000 and £112,500 towards the costs of employing staff to manage the project.

BT were the only bidders for the contract and will be contractually committed to the 97.9% figure, although specific areas and properties are not yet known. The focus is on so called "white areas" that do not have access to next generation (fibre optic) broadband and are not likely to in the next three years.

In a bid to boost business, BT's proposed solution is also set to cover approximately 79% of the South Yorkshire business parks and Enterprise Zones put forward as part of the tender exercise. It is estimated that the project could boost the economy by £271.6m. Rotherham Council believes the Rotherham Borough area "will do very well in respect of its Enterprise Zones and business parks, indeed better than the three other South Yorkshire local authority areas."

The broadband scheme is seeking £8m of funding from the Sheffield city region investment fund for strategic infrastructure investment (SCRIF) but the contract needs to be signed now to meet deadlines set by the Government's BDUK programme.

Opposition councillors wanted BT to cover the costs and wanted more information on the contract - the risks involved and the areas of Rotherham that are set to benefit.

Due to its involvement in the failed Digital Region project, South Yorkshire is the last in this current round of BDUK, the government project with the goal of delivering a fibre point in every community in the UK by the end of 2015. The project timescale "has caused a certain amount of stress which is beyond the control of the four local authorities of South Yorkshire" with the decision on SCRIF, to be made by the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, not due until November.

Cllr. Ken Wyatt, cabinet member for finance, said: "This project is the second or third highest priority of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority. All of the technical and financial details have been assessed and the coalition Government's legal experts have completed the due diligence tests. It would be perverse if the SCRIF monies were not ultimately approved to support the project delivery.

"This opportunity cannot be missed to provide broadband connectivity in this City Region and, in turn, stimulate economic growth and job creation. There is no other similar scheme available, because the private sector would not invest in rural areas. The scheme has coalition Government support and therefore we must take advantage of the project."

The remaining funding is set to be shared by BDUK and BT.

Gavin Patterson, chief executive officer at BT, said: "Getting fibre to rural areas is hard, and often complex, work but we are making great progress. Our engineers are busy, from Hampshire to the Highlands, connecting homes and businesses whatever the challenge. We are laying undersea cables to the Outer Hebrides, reaching remote villages in Wales and transforming rural areas across England.

"BT has brought technical expertise to the table as well as hundreds of millions of pounds. Some of the early projects are close to completion and further funds will be released if we come in under budget or take-up exceeds expectations."

Ironically, BT was one of two companies in the running to take over the Digital Region project before the tender process was halted and the decision was made to close down the network. BT was actually shunned in favour of French firm, Bouygues Energies & Services.

Last week, the request by opposition members was not supported and the cabinet decision was endorsed. The tender response from BT will now be accepted and the project will move to contract and delivery.

BT website

Images: BT Openreach

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