KCB meeting with CBS, 12th February at the Colintraive Hotel

We’re reporting specifically on this meeting between Kyles Community Broadband and Community Broadband Scotland because we received news which has the potential to be a huge setback to the project.

BT, as you may already know, has objected to the consultation document we issued through CBS last month. Their objection is based on the postcodes we aim to cover, and effectively says that we should only have full access to postcodes in Glendaruel and part of Colintraive. All of the postcodes around Tighnabruaich and the rural parts of Bute will be covered by BT’s expanded service. This is not to say that all properties will be covered by BT, but that BT will be able to reach some properties in all of these newly claimed postcodes.

This development of course leaves the project in difficulty. As you will no doubt remember we require 70 properties to make the project sustainable, and there are c. 40 in the remaining postcodes left to us (from a desktop survey carried out by CBS). We will not know which properties won’t be covered until BT rolls out its service to the relevant postcodes.

Why is this happening? Well, we are victims of the way this provision has been rolled out, as well as the contract that has been signed by the Scottish Government on our (the people of Scotland) behalf with BT – which is in turn a function of the monopoly BT has been granted by the UK government. In the original business plan BT predicted a 26% take-up of its rural service. They have found that that percentage has been a very low estimate and take-up has been much higher (surprise, surprise!). Therefore, more money has become available. In this case over £20M. BT are therefore able to install many more cabinets than they previously anticipated they would. We are of coursed pleased BT have expanded their service provision. However, it means that at this juncture we no longer have any certainty over how many potential subscribers will be available to KCB – we now know for instance that both Mount Stuart and Portavadie Marina will be able to connect to BT’s service..

The problem is compounded by the use of postcodes as the only way of allocating properties to BT or to community – an allocation which BT, as we have just seen, and as Rural Bute know from a previous incident of a similar nature, can change at any point more funds become available. As you’ll appreciate in a rural area, postcodes are huge, and while some may have relatively easy access to the new cabinets, there are others in the same postcodes, like Carry Farm down near Ardlamont, will never get a cabinet close enough to BT’s service. Until KCB has clarity on which properties won’t be included in BT’s roll-out in these postcodes, we may not be able to move forward in the manner we have been talking about.

So what are our next steps:

First, even with the postcodes that remain to us, there remains a level of uncertainty. It is possible we might gain a couple more: one on the North end of Bute facing Colintraive, and another along Loch Striven, between Inverchaolin and Ardtaraig. For the latter this is possibly a straightforward omission on BT’s part, for the former, there seem to be two postcodes allocated to the same geographical area. Once these issues are clarified we may be able to add a few more certain properties. At this stage CBS will issue another Consultation document (in the next week or so) which should confirm that BT have no objections and that we will be able to count on this reduced area.

Second, we are asking BT, through CBS and their partners HIE, where the new fibre cabinets are to be sited. Once we have this information, we can work out which properties in any given postcode won’t get the BT service. We can then ask for these to be descoped and add them to our service for funding purposes. This of course depends on a timely response from BT if we are to maintain the roll-out of the community broadband solution. We are concerned that, given BT’s previous record, we might not get this detail for several months – and potentially we could therefore find ourselves in the autumn before we offer our tender to the market.

This means therefore, that to provide a timely rollout to all those who won’t be receiving BT’s service we have a couple of options:

  1. We restrict ourselves to the certain postcodes, a sub-de minimis funding application and create a more do-it-yourself infrastructure programme with local volunteers helping to install the network. The board would be really very unhappy with this as we have committed to 100% coverage for all those missed by BT, so …
  2. We continue at the level we have already discussed, push for de-scoping of properties as quickly as possible and create a tendering process which acknowledges these difficulties of definition, but giving our best guess as to the number and location of subscribers once the new cabinets are in place.

Option (2) is the direction we intend to go. To do this, we will need to (a) apply pressure on BT to give us the exact locations of the cabinets asap (b) call in political favours to make sure (a) happens and (c) connect with other community groups (of which there are many) who have been similarly hamstrung by BT’s lack of clarity.

And why is it important to maximise the size of KCB’s provision? Because as a community-run social enterprise we can provide other benefits, aside from broadband:

  1. We will provide local support for our users
  2. We will re-invest any profits in the infrastructure we build and / or into the communities we serve
  3. We will lease our masts to mobile phone providers to ensure 4G signal throughout our area (if possible)
  4. We will ensure the best contention ratios and speed for our network as possible, and as our capacity increases also ensure our subscribers get the best possible deal.
  5. Best of all, we will be entirely accountable to the communities we serve.
  6. If BT customers wish to swap, for the price of the kit to receive our bandwidth, anyone within the reach of our antennae, will be able to subscribe.