Broadband

The Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme (RGVS)

Review of the Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme (RGVS) as it affects the Parish of Affpuddle and Turnerspuddle – by Campbell de Burgh 11 March 2021 as amended 1 April

Background

The Scheme which ended on 31 March was promoted by the County Council at the Parish Council meeting held before Christmas 2020. With experience of FTTC broadband provision I agreed to find out the degree of interest in the Parish that would lead to a better broadband service than we have now. Two registered suppliers to the Scheme were advised as working in the area; Openreach and Wessex Internet. With Affpuddle identified as an area likely to benefit most and spatially would seem to be the easiest to build a fibre network, a point of contact came forward to deal with that part of the parish leaving me to work with Briantspuddle already on FTTC. I did this on the basis that other parts of the parish out of reasonable reach of FTTC had either already engaged with a supplier or had found alternative means to improve their own situation.

After extensive leaflet drops Affpudlle and Briantspuddle properties indicating an interest were registered individually with Wessex internet and collectively with Openreach. It took a while to discover that although Openreach stated that they were Fibre Node not Exchange dependent that here in our part of Dorset the Nodes are in the Exchanges and that took a bit of unravelling.

Contact with other such projects in the Dorset area was requested at the outset but it was never given. Late in the day I found a local project by personal search. This provided information that helped to clarify the Openreach approach. Like me they found Openreach difficult to deal with: there was no local representative, there were long delays in responding to emails, occasionally if replying at all, and dealing with the “legal entity” problem was deeply uncomfortable even with only half a dozen properties involved. In the one Zoom call that Affpuddle and I managed with Openreach (London) we came away feeling that customer service was not their forte.   

Taking each area in turn from the two principal Exchanges that serve the parish:

Bere Regis Exchange:

Throop/Turnerspuddle/Brockhill were quoted in 2018 by Openreach £190,000 covering 47 properties several of which I understand could not be identified. This comes to about £4,000 per property if all 47 signed up without voucher provision. This was judged to be too much against the expected take up even with vouchers and the offer was not accepted. Some are now signed up to use Wifi/4G. Currently they are being re-approached by Wessex Internet to build a full fibre network based on 40% take up and within voucher provision.

Rogers Hill said that their discussion with Openreach was short – the company were simply not interested. Some are now signed up with Wessex internet.

Briantspuddle are quoted by Openreach £379,142 covering 174 properties including the Throop/Turnerspuddle/Brockhill area and the Rogers Hill area. This comes to £2,178 per property if all 174 signed up. It is within the current voucher provision and some to spare to help cover the inevitable increase in the final quote. The Briantspuddle leaflet drop only covered the 120 properties in the Briantspuddle area drawing interest from 26. These 26 were submitted to Openreach for a quote expecting the initial estimate to cover about 40 – 50 properties. This was based on the advice in the Openreach FAQs that multi-connection points would be fitted even if only one connection was required. However no-one was willing to take on the responsibility of a “legal entity”.

Wessex internet are currently pressing for more Briantspuddle signup and have been asked to see if some of the outlying properties can be included in the Affpuddle/Turnerspuddle/ Throop//Brockhill projects.

Puddletown Exchange:

Affpuddle were quoted £93,534 covering 37 properties. This comes to £2,527 per property if all 37 signed up – just over the current voucher provision. Their leaflet drop covered all 37 properties drawing interest from 26 bringing the actual cost per property well beyond voucher provision. Together with unwillingness to entertain the “legal entity” requirement this led them to dismiss the quote and concentrate on Wessex Internet for whom they currently have 18 signed up for a viable build.

Waddock and Pallington Heath – did not approach Openreach through bad previous experience and I believe sufficient signed with Wessex Internet for the build now complete and covered by voucher provision.

Conclusion

We should have realised what was going on with Openreach from the Affpuddle quote but all became crystal clear from the later Briantspuddle quote. Set against the government intention to discontinue copper connection from 2025 Openreach are the main supplier looking to take the lion’s share of the full fibre work. They clearly do things differently from other registered RGVS suppliers, but we had to find that out for ourselves.

Whilst it may seem that Openreach have quoted for a build that comes close to voucher provision it covers an area not canvassed for current interest and at a scale never expected. The outcome bears no relation to their FAQs and although they advised of government future policy it would seem that in view of an estimate not sought they might actually be pressing a different agenda – to complete part of the government’s proposed roll out of full fibre using the Rural Voucher Scheme to offset future work and costs. In any case we should have been briefed as part of the promotion both of government intent and Openreach positioning. That said and had we known that Openreach might respond in the way that it did and that we could be facing a much larger canvas of interest we would have reacted differently.  Had we, and Affpuddle, also known at the outset about the “legal entity” issue we would have been able to place that at the forefront of thinking and it may well have also coloured our approach to become a much simpler exercise.

Where are we now – we have an Openreach quote in hand massively different than expected and waiting for a new Rural Voucher scheme to emerge. If the new scheme is anything like the current one the Openreach estimate is more than likely to be unaffordable and if the “legal entity” issue remains then it will also be unmanageable by residents. Even if a voucher led demand driven process is introduced the likely lack of take up by a significant proportion of properties due to Wessex Internet activity, or simple unaffordability, means that the target for an Openreach build covered by vouchers will never be reached. Therefore the Openreach solution although generally preferred at least by those already on FTTC is likely to be a non-starter under a resident orientated Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme.

This was reported at the March Parish Council meeting with our County Councillor in attendance. He was dismayed at the outcome with Openreach and sought a letter from the Parish Council explaining the situation. This was sent by email the following day using the brief above and ended:

noting the massive scale of the proposed Openreach solution together with the unwillingness of parishioners to form a “legal entity”. The Parish Council consider that the way forward is to bow to the government intention to replace copper in its entirety. In our view this can be achieved through proper inclusion in a County Council led infrastructure project.  We [the Parish] would certainly be delighted to be part of a rural pilot scheme for replacement of copper by full-fibre as part of an approved national infrastructure plan”.

The Scheme that interested us expired on 31st March 2021 but a new Scheme has just been announced:

Dorset Council advise:

That the new government gigabit voucher scheme launches on Thursday (8 April) and not much has changed from the previous scheme.

The voucher values have remained the same  – £3,500 for a small/medium business and £1,500 for a residential household – as has the main eligibility criteria: You must be rural, you must receive speeds of less than 100mbps and your area  must not be included in any future commercial roll-out plans. The Dorset Council top-up fund from the old scheme is also being transferred into the new scheme and will be issued on a first come, first served basis. This will mean, while the funding is available, that businesses in Dorset can claim up to £6,000 and residents up to £2,500.

There has been a change to what speeds you will have to take if using voucher funding. The old scheme required people who received less than 30mbps to take a service of at least 30 and anyone who received 30 or above to double their speed. In this voucher scheme, if you currently receive less than 50mbps you will have to take a new service of at least 50, and if you already receive 50 and above, to take a service of at least 100mbps.

If you have already registered with a supplier, your scheme should be able to transfer to the new voucher scheme. We would encourage you to continue dialogue with the supplier and continue to engage interest in your community.

Finally, if you would like any further advice about the voucher scheme please do contact connectingdorset@dorsetcouncil.gov.uk .

map of the parish showing properties in the parish eligible for the Voucher Scheme
Properties in the Parish eligible for the original Voucher Scheme

Note: The green dots in the image indicate premises that should be eligible for a Gigabit Voucher/ Dorset Top Up. This means that the premises are classed as rural (by the Office of National Statistics), currently receive less than 100Mbps and are not in any plans to receive FTTP through state aid funded plans

Voucher Terms and Conditions of the old scheme

As recipients of the full fibre service residents are the benificaries of the voucher for which Terms and Conditions will apply. The supplier who is to build the fibre network obtains them from the Government on agreement to proceed by individual households and businesses and they must be read very carefully. A fundamental requirement is that In order to qualify for a voucher grant you must get a broadband connection which meets the Scheme rules agreed to by your supplier and take a service from an ISP that can connect to the full fibre connection for at least a year. In addition the service must be at least 30 Mbps or if you currently receive at least 30 Mbps a service that is double current broadband speed – this may result in transfer costs and different package costs:

Check your speed now with https://broadbandtest.which.co.uk/

A download speed of 12 to 25 Mbps is OK for two or three internet users who want to stream video or play online games. A speed of 25 Mbps and higher supports four-plus people who surf, play games, stream video and more all at the same time. Although sometimes called ‘superfast’ 30Mbps is not really fast by today’s standards! But it can be considered adequate. It is more than enough to stream video (not live streaming!) With 30 Mbps internet service, you’ll be able to download your favourite song or a file for work within a few seconds.

For live streaming and gaming 10-25 Mbps gives moderate HD streaming, online gaming and downloading with a moderate number of connected devices. 25-40Mbps allows heavy HD streaming, online gaming and downloading with a lot of connected devices. 40+Mbps enables hardcore streaming, gaming, and downloading with an extreme number of connected devices.

Regardless of download speed, or how fast you get the stuff, some ISPs limit how much you can download in terms of Mb. This is quite a useful guide on how to estimate that www.choose.co.uk/guide/broadband-data-usage-limits.html

Registering interest and agreement to proceed on a Scheme

The Voucher Scheme relies on groups of premises getting together and registering themselves with an installer (currently Openreach or Wessex Internet in our area) and also with Dorset Council. Both will prefer then to work with a nominated point of contact “stakeholder or champion” for each interested group of properties to act as an administrative link. The stakeholder/champion is not responsible for entering into contract with the installer – for Wessex Internet that is down to individual householders and businesses once agreement to proceed has been reached and for Openreach a “legal entity” is required (Parish Council, Community Interest Company, established Company or individual) prepared to contract on behalf of the group and manage any payments due.

Note: The Legal Entity requirement is proving to be unpopular largely as it requires residents to handle other people’s money should the vouchers not cover the cost of the installation. Also the Legal Entity will be faced with an invoice should any resident of business default on the Terms and Conditions of the voucher scheme requiring withdrawal of a voucher.

County Council advise “that Openreach are trialling a demand led system whereby individuals pledge their vouchers and when sufficient have been pledged the installation will be built without contract. The Terms and Conditions of the voucher scheme still apply“.

Wessex Internet are both the fibre network supplier and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) so they connect up all the way to your computer. They provide the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) box which completes the fibre installation on the inside of your property. This converts the fibre optic data stream to an electrical signal ready for a normal ethernet cable to carry the data stream to their supplied router which connects to your computer. A test will then be conducted to prove that the full fibre service ordered by you is there.

www.wessexinternet.com/community-schemes

Register interest for full fibre:

www.wessexinternet.com/iwantfullfibre

https://www.wessexinternet.com/faqs

Openreach are only a fibre network supplier hosting a variety of ISPs. Regardless of when an installation is carried out it is done so in two distinct phases:

Phase I is the network installation from the nearest major node – often a couple of cabinets inside the telephone exchange – to a Connectorised Box Terminal (CBT) box in the ground or on top of a telegraph pole. The CBT is a multi-connection point to provide the fibre service to as many properties as there are outlets on the box.

Phase 2 requires that you contact the ISP you have chosen which can accept the full fibre service to arrange final termination. Your ISP will arrange for Openreach to return in order to run a fibre cable from the CBT into your property where the Openreach engineer will fit an ONT. Your chosen ISP then connects a suitable router to the ONT and then to your computer. A test will then be conducted to prove that the full fibre service ordered by you is there.

www.openreach.com/fibre-broadband/community-fibre-partnerships

picture illustrating the 6 step process
The process from Dorset Council’s perspective

Be aware that there will be a cost to the resident or business whichever supplier is selected under any scheme:

For a Wessex Internet installation this will be due to the need to change Internet Service Providers (ISPs – BT, Plusnet, Virgin, TalkTalk etc) to Wessex Internet. You may have to deal with early termination charges and change your email address or pay your original ISP for the privilege of keeping it – needs to be looked into and advice is available on the internet or from your ISP. You will need to take a full fibre package from Wessex Internet which meets the Terms and Conditions of the voucher scheme. The article from SAGA below seems to cover the email issue quite well:

www.saga.co.uk/magazine/technology/internet/communications/switch-providers-and-keep-your-email

For an Openreach installation they finish by fitting the ONT inside your property and that is all part of the contract. At that point you must arrange an ISP to connect to a full fibre service for which there may be a connection charge to the ONT. This may include a new router plus the cost of a full fibre package which meets the Terms and Conditions of the voucher scheme.

Other help available for people with broadband speeds of less than 10 Mbs.

If you receive broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps you could be entitled to help from Ofcom’s Universal Service Obligation (USO), run by BT. Unlike the Voucher Scheme this is not a group option.

The USO offers a solution to people who receive less than 10Mbps and in most cases the solution offered would be a Home 4G Hub (this can get you speeds in the region of 30Mbps). When a 4G Hub solution is not suitable the USO can offer a subsidy towards full fibre installation.

What are the pros and cons of Home 4G Broadband?

Pros:
Portable – can be taken anywhere as long as there is a plug
Can be a much faster option over broadband (depending on the package)
More flexible plans available – 1 month through to 24 months
Ideal if you struggle to get fixed line broadband
Cons: 
4G can end up costing more overall than regular broadband
Most plans carry download limits
4G broadband can be patchy in areas making it less reliable

For more information on the USO go to www.bt.com/broadband/USO

In the meantime

and if you are stuck with poor performance then there are things that can be checked:

Looking Way Ahead

There is a proposal by OFCOM to withdraw the copper service from about 2026 as being past its sell by date:

read https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/204853/consultation-copper-regulation-withdrawal-conditions.pdf