Broadband rollout: BT director says results are starting to be felt

Simon Roberson, BT's North East regional partnership director, at the new broadband box in Eglingham.
Simon Roberson, BT's North East regional partnership director, at the new broadband box in Eglingham.

One of BT’s top men in the North East has highlighted how the telecoms giant is more than meeting its target in terms of the fibre broadband rollout, reminding rural residents that the current project was never supposed to reach everywhere.

Earlier this week, the Gazette met Simon Roberson, BT’s North East regional partnership director, at the new broadband box in Eglingham, which is now connected to the Powburn exchange four or five miles away by fibre-optics.

He pointed out that Eglingham and a number of other rural villages, such as Whittingham, Thropton and Harbottle, are now live and there are more in the pipeline.

There is perhaps a perception that the rollout took a while to start getting to these sorts of places, but Simon said that the planning cycle for a village like Eglingham, which has a green telephone exchange box, is around six to nine months.

If it’s more complicated and has to be incorporated into a copper network, it’s more like 12 months.

Phase one, which is currently ongoing, aims to provide 90 per cent of premises with access to fibre broadband.

“There will be very few villages and hamlets of any size that won’t have access by the end of the phase,” said Simon. “It will be a handful of places where there are specific issues.”

There is more funding for phase two to raise that figure to 95 per cent and the Government wants to get the contracts signed off before May’s General Election.

As with anything, the key issue is funding and the care that needs to be taken when taxpayers’ money is spent.

It is worth remembering that in north Northumberland, only Alnwick and Berwick were provided superfast access as part of BT’s commercial rollout; everywhere else is subsidised heavily by local and central government.

Simon said: “Central government just wants 90 or 95 per cent coverage in each area and they don’t know about specific villages. Local government have an idea about where they want the money to go.

“We use a computer model, map it onto our existing model and estimate where is going to be most economical. We work down the list and stop when the money runs out.

“It’s very difficult to deviate from that because it’s unfair to favour one area over another.”

The entire BDUK delivery of superfast broadband is strictly governed by EU State Aid regulations, designed to prevent unfair subdsidies which could distort competition.

That’s not to say that nothing is being done for the final five per cent and Simon believes BT will have a role to play there, perhaps in combination with providers of alternative technologies.

The company has been developing a number of technologies which could be used to get to the more remote and difficult areas.

Another factor that can help those areas so far left behind is the clawback principle by which if there is sufficient demand for broadband across the county that it becomes commercially viable, the subsidy money is then reinvested in providing more broadband access.

This is alongside BT being contracted to get to a certain number of premises within a certain timetable while being subject to audit for all the money that is spent.

Overall Simon is satisfied with how the project is going, particularly as they had no idea what to expect at the start, although the Rothbury scheme, which was funded separately by Defra’s Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), was a useful guinea pig.

“It’s gone as well as we could have expected,” he said. “We are consistently ahead of the delivery schedule and have overcome all the obstacles so far.

“But it’s the hardest areas that are left to last. Having said that, there’s nothing left radically different to what we have done elsewhere in the project.”