Broadband in Upper Lambourn – Important information

Update 17 September 2020

Since writing the article below, on 12 September 2020, I’ve spoken to the project team of Superfast Berkshire (SfB) about the issue of the provision of broadband in Berkshire (and, by implication, the rest of the country). Broadband is a complex and technical subject at the best of times, and has been made more so by the large number of different and sometimes overlapping government schemes and grants and also by the fact that not all broadband enablement promised by private-sector firms actually took place.

The Superfast Broadband programme – from which the organisation SfB takes its name – is now closed (although work is continuing on providing the services). Multiple open-market reports identified properties which required broadband and private firms were invited to provide this. No new applications can now be made

To some extent, this is now irrelevant. A new scheme, the Rural Gigabit Vouchers, was introduced earlier this year (and closes in March 2021). This offers a different approach. Properties without broadband, individually or grouped together, can apply for grants which can then be offered to commercial providers. If the collective grants cover this, the households pay nothing. In some cases there might be a shortfall which would then be for the households to negotiate with the company or raise themselves.

On the BDUK page covering the Rural Gigabit Vouchers, applicants are asked to enter a postcode. As most postcodes contain more than one property, and as some of these may already have received state aid, or have broadband, and others do not, the results can sometimes be inconclusive and say that the application may not be successful. BDUK’s data is not sufficiently granular, in this interface at least, to determine the status of an individual property. However, SfB does have this data, as do the individual suppliers. In some way, all this will be mashed and filtered so that the grants are allocated to those who are entitled to them. If you do not have broadband, you should therefore continue with the registration even if you get this ‘maybe’ option. If you are told that you are definitely not eligible but feel that you are, please contact gigabitvoucher@dcms.gov.uk

The consultation to which the article below referred covers a separate issue, that of the (old) Superfast project. 280 properties across Berkshire were identified as being eligible under this old system and it was about these that the consultation (initiated by BDUK) was concerned. Its purpose was to establish from the suppliers if any of these properties had since been connected or were about to be. The reference in clause 7 to individuals invited any of them to volunteer this information, although SfB would already be apprised of this by the suppliers. it was not an invitation to register for the scheme although it’s easy to see why that might have been the perception.

SfB plans to update its website: that certainly seems overdue as there is an active consultation but otherwise no recent information. Since it was established, a slew of new initiatives – including Gigabit Vouchers, Rural Gigabit Vouchers, Outside In and Full Fibre – have emerged, all of which should certainly be the task of a local authority to promote and explain. Assuming that SfB will be taking on this, the ‘Superfast’ part of its name is therefore perhaps also out of date.

One major concern strikes me. As with building development, this aspect of government policy has effectively been outsourced to the private sector. A commercial company might say, under the old Superfast programme, that it had the intention of providing broadband to say 200 properties: however, when it looked the situation over more closely it may have decided that some of these were non-viable and these were left behind. I’m not sure, but am trying to establish, to what extent these ‘intentions’ were expressed as legally binding agreements for past schemes (like Superfast) and whether they will be for future ones. If they aren’t, history might repeat itself.

A further problem, under the Superfast programme, appears to be that any properties which a commercial company had expressed the intention of connecting were marked as ‘grey’ on the database held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (and, later Building Digital UK, or BDUK) and were then excluded from schemes which involved any form of state aid. Even if no commercial connection happened, for whatever reason, this status could not be changed. I understand that SfB took this issue right to the top at BDUK but without success.

These, and other issues besides, seem to have afflicted the broadband provision in Upper Lambourn (and many other communities elsewhere). In general, West Berkshire is well served. In June 2020, Howard Woollaston, WBC’s Executive Portfolio Holder for Internal Governance (and also Lambourn’s ward member) said that West Berkshire “was near the top of the league table in terms of Superfast coverage with levels of 96.2%.” This is (as he has admitted) of no consolation to the 3.8%, for some of whom ‘super slow’ would be a better description of the service they receive.

“The broadband situation in Upper Lambourn is just not fit for purpose today,” said local resident and business owner Mark Christopher. “For ten years I and several other residents have been promised much but received nothing. Our speeds hover around the old dial-up level. Running a business, particularly during Covid lockdowns, is now almost impossible.  Without a superfast connection (up and down) it will be very difficult for my business to survive in the current climate. I hope that the latest Rural Gigabit scheme will finally solve this problem, for us and the many other households and companies across the country which have been blighted in this way. I’d like to be sure, though, that the next time we’re promised something it will actually be provided, and that the delivery process is transparently understandable and uncomplicated to access. This lack of modern communications could prove to be an existential problem for many rural SMEs.”

My suggestion for residents of Upper Lambourn (and anyone else in Berkshire) who does not have broadband is as follows:

  • Contact the SfB team (see below) to establish if you are due for a connection under the Superfast scheme and, if so, who will be providing this and when it’s expected to happen.
  • Also register for the Rural Gigabit scheme (see above) asap and certainly by 31 Match 2021. If you are rejected by this it may be because you are in the original Superfast scope (see point above). You will then need to keep in touch with the SfB team and the supplier to ensure that your connection will happen when promised. If you are accepted by the Rural Gigabit scheme, you should then learn what the next steps will be.

If, bearing in mind the above points, you still have any questions on any aspect of broadband schemes in Berkshire, please contact SfB at ProjectTeam@Superfastberkshire.co.uk.

If you feel there are other aspects of this matter that you’d like to comment on, please contact me on brian@pennypost.org.uk or use the comments panel at the foot of the post and I shall bear these in mind with any updates.

12 September 2020

It’s well known, certainly to those who live there, that the broadband service in parts of Upper Lambourn is abominable. Over the last 10 years, various companies have agreed to complete that part of the network: for one reason or another, this has never happened. If one were to gather together all the documents, emails and meeting notes relating to this tangled story (and I know one person who has kept many of them) they would make a small book, although so far one without a happy ending.

Earlier this month, I was told that there was a public consultation on the subject which closed on 26 September but no one seemed to know the link or even who was running it. I looked at West Berkshire Council’s consultations page, which seemed like the obvious place: nothing. A Google search produced the usual bewildering display of results but nothing that seemed to refer to this. There was no point in looking at Lambourn Parish Council’s website as for some reason it doesn’t have one: moreover, the site on a corner of which the PC has been rather awkwardly camped for some time has recently taken down all the official council information, apart from one generic page. I contacted LPC itself to see if there was anything in the recent minutes but have received no reply. The officer responsible for the matter at West Berkshire Council was away. The ward member had only very recently made aware of the consultation but didn’t have any details. I spoke to two people who were affected by the awful service and they’d heard nothing either. I was starting to think that the consultation didn’t exist at all.

On 11 September, I tried again. After giving Google several combinations of the likely words and phrases, I finally ran the damned thing to earth. It was buried on the Superfast Berkshire (SfB) site and you can see it here. It’s probably the most clunky, long and inelegant consultation I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing interactive about it: rather than filling in boxes or clicking options you have to send a separate email. There are various extra documents linked at the bottom which may help to make sense of it. You have until 26 September to decipher it and respond.

SfB’s main job of work seems to have been completed in 2016 when most of the area was enabled to a reasonable speed. Aside from adding the link to this consultation (on a tab rather than festooned across the home page as one might expect) the site doesn’t seem to have been touched since. The last news item, for instance, is from February 2016. None the less, a consultation is now active. Nothing about the way it’s written or designed – and in particular about the way it’s been promoted, or not promoted – suggests there was any interest in people even finding it, still less completing it. I don’t know what the minimum legal requirements for a public consultation are but hiding it on a website that hasn’t been used for four years and not telling anyone about it surely falls a long way short.

The risk is – as I understand has happened before this affair – that if no one responds, SfB or whichever of the myriad organisations that might be in the frame for getting the work done could say ‘well, we asked and no one replied.’

I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently expert to offer any advice on how this should be completed, nor if it’s relevant for your property. (Bear in mind that SfB covers the whole of the old county of Berkshire, currently divided into six unitary authorities. There would appear to be at least one cold-spot area in each of these. You might want to have a look at this page on Bracknell Forest Council’s website which seems to be referring to the same general issue and links to SfB’s site, but oddly makes no mention of this consultation.)

If you feel you need help or want to take the matter of this well hidden document or the whole question of poor broadband further, I can offer two suggestions.

  • If you live in Lambourn, the ward member Howard Woollaston has recently been involved in trying to resolve this problem (which long pre-dates his term of office). You can contact him at howard.woollaston1@westberks.gov.uk. If you live in another ward and have a systemic problem, contact your ward member (details of all West Berkshire Councillors can be seen here). If you live outside the old county of Berkshire then this won’t be relevant to you, although there are doubtless similar bodies in your area. (On 12 September, Councillor Woollaston told Penny Post that “I will be working with the Superfast Berkshire Manager next week to obtain a simple explanation of what needs to be done which I will share with Upper Lambourn residents.”)
  • If you feel that the whole problem has ground you down and that you’ve spent the last 10 years being given the run-around by a succession of telecom providers (which is how one person has described it to me) then you might want to contact your MP. For almost all of West Berkshire (including Lambourn), this is Laura Farris. You can find her details here. Like Howard Woollaston, she has only been in post since 2019 but seems to be much involved in many issues at this end of her constituency, including the sewage problem. There are also now government grants available to help resolve broadband cold-spots.

I shall be trying to find out why the matter was so poorly publicised and to ensure that any future communications are handled better. As mentioned about, Howard Woollaston has already agreed to look into this as well.

If you have anything to add to this from your knowledge or experience, please post a comment (see foot of post).

Brian Quinn

Photo: © Canstock

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