Delays dash hopes of island community fibre broadband
HOPES of a full fibre community network on Skye look to be dashed after North Skye Broadband (NSB) backed out of a state aid application following a ‘frustrating’ 18 months.
The not-for-profit community organisation has announced it will no longer be progressing with its application for funding from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and Community Broadband Scotland (CBS).
The decision was taken following delays in the lengthy application process because of complex public procurement requirements.
NSB has already undertaken two separate state aid public consultations – a mandatory requirement of the procurement process – and the decision not to proceed comes as it was due to undertake a third consultation, which has been delayed for nearly six months.
Reported difficulties with the open market review have also hindered the process, with NSB saying time was wasted waiting for more accurate information, as apparently existing data has been found in many cases to have a 30 to 40 per cent error rate.
Geoff Semler, chairman of NSB, said from the start the company had planned to be a community- owned network, minimising costs and using local resources where possible.
Geoff explained its aim was to ‘narrow the digital divide caused by operators only offering high-speed broadband in denser urban areas and ignoring the needs of fragile rural communities, where many residents and businesses only have the choice of inferior broadband via obsolete technologies or, often, no internet connection’.
Speaking after NSB took the decision, he said: ‘It has been clear to NSB throughout that a wireless-based trunk network is wholly inappropriate for our needs. Not only does the harsh environment on Skye present challenges to the erection of masts and aerials, but HIE’s own figures demonstrate that even if such a scheme can be profitable, the business case simply does not generate sufficient surplus revenue to finance the technology refresh that will inevitably be needed to meet the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth.
‘The existing state aid schemes are not fit for purpose because they are designed to support the provision of as many wireless networks as possible, as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible.’
The chairman said the state aid rules require such networks to be future proof, but in his opinion they are ‘anything but’.
‘Ironically, until the chancellor’s 2016 autumn statement and the establishment of the digital infrastructure fund, BDUK would not approve any state aid application that specified optical fibre as the network medium.
‘Now they are crying out for commercial providers to build fibre networks but continue to refuse to fund community- owned networks.’
He added: ‘The state aid process actually precludes NSB from adding any value to the implementation or operation of the network. Instead it uses NSB as a funding conduit to provide a commercial operator and its benefactors with a state subsidy.’
It was decided none of these schemes meet NSB’s requirements.