Broadband in Brightling and East Sussex – ESALC talk

This is the approximate text of a talk about rural broadband to be delivered by Andrew Wedmore at a board meeting of ESALC (East Sussex Association of Local Councils) on 10 July 2018

In May 2013 I became chairman of Brightling Parish Council.   In 2015 we carried out a parish survey, to try and find out what issues were of greatest concern to parishioners, and “poor broadband speeds” emerged as an important concern.

So I decided to take this up.

Step 1 was, as always, “get the facts”.  That proved much harder than I could ever have imagined.  I’ve only got time to give you two brief examples.

The first thing I did was to write to the ESCC broadband team asking for an analysis of broadband speeds in Brightling.  I got a reply saying that they would be happy to provide such an analysis but there would be a cost.  When I asked what the cost would be, they replied to say that they had changed their minds.  They were not prepared to give out the information for Brightling even if I was prepared to pay for it.  Why not?  Because their target was to achieve a certain percentage of high-speed broadband across the county as a whole; but there was no target for individual communities and therefore no point in measuring it.

So much for facts about the present situation.  What about the plans for the future?

In March 2017 I learned that the end date for contract 2 had moved from December 2017 out to December 2018.  Ienquired about this and got no reply.  Eventually I learned that ESCC had signed a £2m extension of contract 2.  I became a bit suspicious about this: where had the extra £2m come from, why had the contract gone to BT without competition when we had been told that future contracts would be competitive? – I asked when this had been announced, where one could read about it on the ESCC website.  I was told that the answers would be in an “information pack” that would be published and issued to councillors by June 2017.  That simply didn’t happen.  Total silence.  I resorted to FoI requests.  Eventually, in October 2017, I was informed that the promised information pack was never produced at all, due to “long-term staff sickness”.

Finally, on 6 February this year (2018), some colleagues and I had a meeting with Becky Shaw, the chief executive of East Sussex County Council.  These were colleagues from other parish councils in East Sussex with similar problems.  We had set up our panel under the auspices of RALC, the Rother Association of Local Councils and had been pushing for this meeting for over a year.  The main thrust of what we had to say was not the slow progress, but rather the extreme difficulty of just finding out what was going on.  It is fair to say that East Sussex, and Becky Shaw in particular took this point on board.   In particular we were highly critical of the official web site for the East Sussex broadband project, esussex.org.

At the time the esussex.org website was pretty dreadful.  Both as to presentation – breaking many of the standards of web page design – but more importantly as to content.  Basic questions such as where are we in the progress towards superfast broadband in East Sussex? and what is the predicted future coverage – this sort of information simply wasn’t there.   Anyway I am now very pleased to say that the esussex.org website has been completely overhauled and is now vastly better.  I like to think that this was the result of our pressure, although maybe they were going to do it anyway.

One can now read, for the first time, a coherent time-line, showing past and future progress towards the objective of 100% superfast coverage.

So you might think: you’ve got what you wanted – you have finally got the information you are looking for (albeit it has taken a few years) and we are looking at having 99% superfast coverage in the county in the not-too-distant future so Job Done, right?

Well no – and this is my main message for today.

Firstly, there is no such thing as Job Done.  Or there shouldn’t be.  The internet does not stand still.  Technology does not stand still.  The targets that we are now looking at (nearly) achieving were set in 2011.  In fact in 2011 the sights were set much higher.  I’d like to refer you back to the original capital progamme bid, dated September 2011

“Funding is sought to enable the County Council to deliver its vision for the competitive provision of superfast broadband offering typical speeds of 100Mbps to everyone (100% of homes and small businesses) in East Sussex by 2017…”

Capital programme bid, dated 2 September 2011, obtained through FoI by a Brightling resident

And please note that this promises “typical speeds of 100Mbps” – whereas all the percentages, all the progress-measurement that I have quoted, and which you can read on the official eSussex website – all of that relates to the minimum superfast standard of 24Mbps.

And that is one of our main on-going concerns.  If you read through all the content on the official eSussex website, it is all about achieving the standard 24Mbps – the minimum needed to qualify as superfast.  There is an underlying assumption that this is the end game – and once everyone has got 24Mbps then we really can say “job done.”

For an individual who wants to visit the web and receive emails, 24 Mbps will give them a good service, provided that they haven’t got too many children.  Many small businesses will be happy with that – but you certainly won’t attract high-tech businesses.  And it is not by any means future-proof, even for individual domestic use.

To put it simply: the 24 Mbps service which is rather misleadingly called “superfast” is not the end point but rather the starting point.

Let’s look at the levels of internet speed we should be talking about.

Superfast Between 24Mbps and 80 Mbps [80 Mbps is currently the maximum you can achieve with BT-Openreach FTTC.  BT are going to raise it to 160Mbps but not rolled out yet]
Ultrafast 80 – 500 Mbps.  Can get up to about 160 Mbps with part-fibre solutions, beyond this requires FTTP/FTTH/FTTB services
Hyperfast 500 – 1000 Mbps
Gigabit broadband 1000 Mbps (=1 Gbps) or better

Look at what other countries are doing

Here is a graph

The UK does not show up on this graph because we simply we the UK are below the minimum.

What are other counties doing?  I don’t know, but I do know that Gigaclear has put in 800Mbps fully-fibre services in 12 counties (details at www.gigaclear.com/our-communities)

Buckinghamshire

Cambridgeshire

Essex

Gloucester

Hertfordshire

Kent

Lincolnshire

Northamptonshire

Oxfordshire

Rutland

West Berkshire

What I notice about this list is two things: (a) they are all rural counties and (b) East Sussex is not on the list.

If we are interested in the economic development of East Sussex – then we have to take an interest in where we are going beyond superfast broadband – and the time to do it is now.

And you don’t have to take my word for it.  Just after I had written the above words, I read at http://rsnonline.org.uk/fresh-warning-over-rural-broadband Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission

“In the future, access to full fibre broadband will be absolutely essential to our daily lives. While the government’s plan to extend it to most homes in the next seven years is welcome, it needs to go even further and faster, if rural communities are not to be left behind.”

So the first thing I would like to do is to find out what is the status of ultrafast in East Sussex – current and planned?  I asked my county councillor this question: he did not know and he has not come back to me with an answer.  We asked Becky Shaw the same question in our February 2018 meeting.

It is a very important question, and there is no evidence that ESCC are giving it any attention at all at the moment.

One of the points that we made, when we met Becky Shaw, was that it had taken a very long time indeed to get this meeting, and we were wary of it just being a one-off meeting; what was needed was some kind of on-going forum where the progress of broadband across the county could be examined and debated.  The response was that they accepted and were open to the idea of a forum, but felt that RALC was the wrong level, because RALC represented only one district in East Sussex, and it would be rather inefficient to have separate meetings for each district.  So it was suggested that the appropriate place for these discussions should be at county level, ie ESALC.

So that is why we are here: to ask whether ESALC can provide a forum whereby parishes such as ourselves can have an on-going engagement.  We are not asking for a magic money tree – we are well aware that that doesn’t exist.  We are not asking for confidential information to be divulged.  What we are looking for is to improve the communication process – in both directions by means of an on-going consultation panel.  Can ESALC provide such a forum?