Marshwood Vale Community Broadband Project

Later in 2015 this project will begin rolling out superfast broadband to almost every household and business in a very rural part of Dorset. The approach taken in this case could be described as a community-led project, which can cite certain advantages and which tests one way of extending broadband to the final 5% of hard-to-reach communities. Make sure that you get the best priced broadband available for your area, the quickest and easiest way to do this is to compare broadband deals on usave

The challenge

The settlement pattern of Marshwood Vale in West Dorset is one of small villages and scattered farms. There is no BT exchange located within the Vale and those which surround it (in places such as Broadwindsor, Chideock, Charmouth, Hawkchurch and Chard) are too far distant to deliver a superfast broadband connection. Currently households and businesses must make do with download connection speeds of around 0.5 to 2.0 Megabits per second (Mbps).

The main Superfast Dorset programme aims to meet the central Government target by delivering a superfast connection of at least 24 Mbps to 95% of premises in Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole by the end of 2017. However, the plans for rolling out this programme did not include Marshwood Vale. For a number of local residents this fact was seen as posing a significant constraint upon the area’s economy and social wellbeing.

The response

Broadband speeds were initially identified as a topic of local concern during work to produce a Parish Plan for the Upper Marshwood Vale group of parishes in 2010. A community broadband project group of volunteers was established the following year, which began active work surveying needs and exploring solutions. It had the good fortune to be chaired by a resident with past experience as a telecoms engineer.

Local survey results indicated that 15% to 20% of premises in the area were being used to run a small business or for home working (often on a part time basis). The economic potential if broadband could be made accessible seemed clear, therefore, though early soundings indicated that the capital costs to create the required telecoms network would be far in excess of anything that might be considered commercial.

Meanwhile, the Superfast Dorset partnership – between all the area’s local authorities and with Dorset County Council as lead partner – was established to draw in match-funding from the Government’s Superfast Broadband Programme, in order to subsidise roll out to areas where it would not happen commercially. The contract for deploying this programme was awarded to BT in 2013. Given the available resources the programme expected superfast speeds to become available to 95% of premises, but this still wouldn’t reach far into Marshwood Vale.

Various different technologies and approaches were explored by the community broadband group, including that planned in the north of the County where private equity was to be sought to fund their own telecoms network. In the event, a very different approach was decided upon. The group would bid for additional funding specifically to enable the Superfast Dorset roll out, through its chosen contractor (who had not been confirmed at this point), to include Marshwood Vale. In essence, the aim was to piggy-back on the existing programme.

When Defra announced a £20 million Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) in 2012, targeted at hard-to-reach communities in the final 5%, the group submitted a funding bid. A decision about this initial application was deferred and a revised bid routed via the County Council was invited.

With support from the Superfast Dorset team a strong business case was put together. This demonstrated the economic case and likely return on investment. The community group sought and received formal support from County and District Councillors, several Parish Councils, the Member of Parliament and local businesses, amongst others.

As Charles Somers from the community project explains,

“we pushed every button we could think of”.

Letters were gathered from 130 local businesses and residents to show the level of untapped demand for broadband. These enabled the revised bid to be peppered with real life stories, such as the school girl finding it hard to complete homework and the local print business which had moved away from the Vale to a location with broadband.

The application was submitted using actual costs from BT. These exceeded some of Defra’s funding criteria for its scheme, but support for the project was so overwhelming that extra funding was instead found from within the main Superfast Broadband Programme (run by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) and in 2014 the bid was agreed.

As far as the community group is concerned there was some advantage to the delay whilst the bid was revised. It has become clearer exactly which areas will be covered by the main Superfast Dorset programme and what gaps remain to be plugged.

The principle was, “Wherever they don’t go, we will”.

The contract for the project has recently been signed off. Survey work is expected to start in June 2015 and improvement works will commence later in the year.

Benefits and outcomes

The approach adopted is technology neutral and left to BT to determine, as it has been in the remainder of the Superfast Dorset programme. The use of ‘remote nodes’ to bring fibre closer to premises than the nearest exchanges is one possibility. Certain properties could end up with fibre to the premises (FTTP), offering speeds of several hundred Mbps and transforming some of the slowest connections into some of the fastest.

Under the Marshwood Vale project contract, around 380 domestic and business premises across 54 postcodes will gain access to a connection with download speeds of at least 24 Mbps. This would appear to mean that broadband coverage across ten very rural parishes in and adjoining the Marshwood Vale area will increase from around 70% – which is what would have been expected under the main Superfast Dorset programme – to around 90%.

On the one hand it is not cheap, at around £2,500 of public subsidy per premises. However, the business case for the project bid estimates that every £1 of public subsidy being invested should generate a financial return of £2. In all, some £2 million is expected to be added to the area’s economy.

The business case calculated that the provision of superfast broadband should create or sustain 22 jobs in Marshwood Vale.

The project is also seen as delivering considerable, if less quantifiable, social benefits, for example through the online access it affords to public services. This could be particularly relevant to an ageing population living in a relatively isolated area.

The approach adopted is seen by the community group as having certain advantages. For a start, they did not particularly wish to take on the substantial task of managing and delivering a telecoms project. It also means they have been able to make use of existing Superfast Dorset contractual arrangements.

Finally, they avoid the risk that roll out of the main Superfast Dorset programme overlaps and competes with their project, affecting its viability. There is a non-duplication clause in the contract, whereby any savings that may arise due to increased coverage by the main programme into Marshwood Vale must be ploughed back into helping other off-map areas.

Resources used

The Marshwood Vale community broadband project has secured just over £1 million of central Government funding. In the event, the timing of the project means that this is coming from the main Superfast Broadband Programme (rather than from Defra’s fund which ceases in 2014/15).

BT Openreach, as network provider, is also contributing to the capital investment costs for this project and it will be responsible, subsequently, for running costs associated with maintenance of the network. It is obliged to take responsibility should there be any project overspend, as the contract stipulates delivery to at least 377 premises.

The financial assumption underlying these roll out costs is that there will be a 20% take up of superfast broadband services. If, as expected, this level is exceeded, a clawback clause in the contract will return some money to Superfast Dorset where it can be reinvested to extend coverage elsewhere in the county.

Lessons for others

The approach taken in Marshwood Vale is different from many other community broadband projects. However, it can be seen as a highly pragmatic and a low risk solution, and hopefully soon one which is also effective. This could be described as a project which is community led, distinguishing it from those which are community delivered.

There can be little doubt that the success of the project to-date owes a great deal to the tenacity and positive approach of those in the community broadband project group and especially its chair, Charles Somers. If further proof were needed of this, he was elected chair of the countywide Dorset Community Broadband Forum and was given a place on the Programme Board for the main Superfast Dorset programme.

As time went by and the credibility of the Marshwood Vale project grew, it accumulated valuable support from a wide range of influential organisations across the public, private and civil society sectors. The County Council are said to have offered amazing cooperation to the project, as an extension of the Superfast Dorset programme.

In the words of Parish Councillor, Ali Cameron,

“There’s been a lot of goodwill extended by all parties”.

The clear business case proved powerful in putting together a convincing funding bid and the many letters of support obtained were essential to demonstrate the potential for a high level of take-up.

The community broadband group hope that their experience has lessons for the future of the Superfast Broadband Programme, especially since solutions are now being explored to bring connectivity to the final 5% of premises. Marshwood Vale provides an interesting test case, how far the BT fibre network can be extended into remoter rural areas, using what technologies and at what cost. It may prove an interesting comparator with other pilot projects and approaches being funded under phase three of the Superfast Broadband Programme.

The community group has every intention of encouraging take up of broadband just as soon as it arrives in the Vale. One common misunderstanding they know they will need to counter is that its arrival means consumers automatically receive superfast broadband, when of course such a service upgrade will require individual requests to be made to Internet Service Providers.