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Connecting Devon and Somerset calls for flexible Government approach for hard to reach areas

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Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) is calling for a flexible approach from Government to improve broadband connectivity in very hard to reach areas in order to avoid the risk of communities “being left behind”.

In its response to the Government’s consultation on the issue, CDS states that a mix of large contractual delivery, in parallel with support for community solutions through voucher schemes, is needed to tackle the challenges of delivering broadband to the most rural communities.

Matt Warman MP, the Minster for Digital Infrastructure, issued a call for evidence to help inform the Government’s strategy on future broadband rollout.

The area covered by CDS is one of the most rural of any broadband programme in the country, and it is estimated that around 10% of all remaining premises in need of broadband access could be defined as “very hard to reach”.

CDS has consulted with a number of local partners in preparing its response, including the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), National Farmers’ Union (NFU), South West Tourism Alliance and the Devon Association of Local Councils. The overwhelming view from all stakeholders was that a lack of adequate or reliable broadband amplifies the economic challenges for those living in remote areas on incomes which are already lower than the national average. It also prevents access to health, education and government services, and impacts on business growth.

The feedback from CDS states that, “fast reliable digital connectivity is an essential means of breaking down the barriers of isolation, strengthening community resilience and improving the lives of people in these communities.”

It adds that there is, “an increasing need for Government and wider public sector investment in digital connectivity in rural areas and that the Very Hard to Reach Premises are at risk of being left behind without it. Gigabit solutions are needed to remove the digital divide and support the levelling up agenda.”

CDS also believes there is a, “need to encourage a more collaborative approach in the market to ensure a holistic joined up approach to tackling the challenges posed by Very Hard to Reach Premises. This needs to involve providers working on Superfast contracts, fully commercial operations, those delivering Gigabit Voucher schemes as well as the Universal Service Obligation (USO) and Project Gigabit.”

Nationally the aim of the Superfast broadband programme was for commercial investment to build two thirds of broadband infrastructure. However, in some areas of the CDS region, such as the West Somerset District Council area, public subsidy through CDS accounts for over 80% of all superfast coverage.

One of the main barriers to delivering broadband to very hard to reach premises in rural areas is the fact that they are so remote from other premises which increases the cost and requires additional subsidy.

Wessex Internet has an excellent track record in delivering on its desire to connect whole communities. It is widely acknowledged that this type of approach leads to an overall increased Cost Per Premises Passed. However, it is the right thing to do, as avoiding connections to very hard to reach areas to reduce this cost creates gaps in the coverage and makes it more difficult for another operator to complete in future.

Capacity of telecomms contractors is another key issue highlighted by CDS. It states one solution could be to foster a wider pool of smaller, tactical providers with the skill and appetite to in-fill areas, “perhaps striking partnership agreements with the volume providers in the region” to access networks under construction.

Good broadband connectivity is vital for all residents and businesses, no matter where they live.

Farmers need to register livestock online before transporting them in order to meet current regulations. Vulnerable residents who receive health and social care are also increasingly isolated without reliable broadband and they cannot access modern monitoring devices used by clients in more urban areas with better connections. Many smaller parish councils were unable to hold remote meetings during the pandemic due to poor connectivity.

CDS has worked effectively with the BDUK Gigabit Voucher Scheme and its previous iterations to support the delivery of community solutions in hard to reach areas not covered by existing contracts. Around £12 million has been invested in the region through voucher schemes, providing full-fibre broadband to more than 8,000 premises to date.

However, there are increasing examples of areas where there is interest and enthusiasm, but schemes are not viable because of insufficient funding from the existing voucher levels. CDS has found that a funding shortfall of at least £6 million has left over 120 schemes unable to proceed using voucher schemes over the past 12 months.

According to the most recent CDS Open Market Review (OMR), even after all of the current planned commercial build and latest publicly subsidised contracts are completed, around 41,000 premises in the CDS region will still be left with broadband speed which are below superfast (30Mbps).

Photo of Councillor David Hall
Councillor David Hall

Councillor David Hall, CDS Board Member and Somerset County Council Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Planning and Community Infrastructure, said: “More needs to be done to help us to remove the digital divide and this consultation provides the Minister with an up to date picture of the challenges and what needs to be achieved. The pandemic has further underlined the importance of good digital connectivity for rural areas, and the Government needs to provide the support to ensure communities are not left behind. Improved broadband is vital for a strong economic recovery and it should be a key element of the Government’s levelling up agenda.”

Photo of Councillor Rufus Gilbert
Councillor Rufus Gilbert

Councillor Rufus Gilbert, CDS Board Member and Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Economy and Skills, said: “It’s becoming acknowledged that broadband connectivity is the fourth utility. We champion the need for better broadband in the CDS region and in particular in very hard to reach rural communities. Without it, businesses will struggle to bounce back, students will not get the support they need for their learning and our ambitions to reduce carbon will be harder to achieve.”

CDS has delivered superfast access to over 300,000 homes and businesses – that is more than any other broadband programme in England. A further 80,000 are scheduled for coverage under CDS’ Superfast contracts, Gainshare, and community schemes which are either underway or have been approved.

The full consultation response can be viewed on the Connecting Devon and Somerset website.