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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Jones

Gov Publish Next Phase of UK Rural Gigabit Broadband Rollout Plan

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Article by Mark Jackson

The UK Government will today publish the next phase (inc. Phase 1a, 1b and 2) of their £5bn Project Gigabit programme, which in this batch aims to spread 1Gbps capable broadband ISP networks to a further 1.85 million rural premises (2.2 million confirmed so far) across 26 counties in England. Gigabit vouchers have also been boosted.

Just to recap. Project Gigabit seeks to extend such speeds to reach at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025, and they also aim to get “as close to 100% as possible” – depending upon how the industry responds (i.e. so far only £1.2bn has been released from the budget, but more will be unlocked if the industry shows they can deliver what is needed).

NOTE: The project is technology neutral, so it can use solutions like FTTP (preferred method), Hybrid Fibre Coax (DOCSIS 3.1+) and wireless technology to solve the gap.

At present around 42% of UK premises can already access a gigabit-capable network (c.24% via just FTTP), which should reach about 60% by the end of 2021, and it’s hoped that commercial deployments could then push this up to around 80% by the end of 2025 (mostly in urban areas). As a result Project Gigabit is exclusively focused upon improving connectivity to those rural and semi-rural areas in the final 20% (5-6 million premises).

The project actually consists of several support schemes, including gigabit vouchers (£210m), funding to extend Dark Fibre in the public sector (£110m) and gap-funded deployments with suppliers (rest of the funding). In today’s article we’re focused on the latter, which sees ISPs bidding – via a new Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) run by the Building Digital UK (BDUK) team – to extend their networks across rural parts of the UK.

The Latest Procurement Areas

The first procurement phase (Phase 1a) of this project was announced in March 2021 and that covered parts of Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Tees Valley. The next set of procurement's cover many more areas in England (see bottom of article), stretching across 26 counties.

Almost half a million (480,000) premises in Shropshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight will be among the first to benefit, followed by counties including Derbyshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Surrey, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

NOTE: Project Gigabit in England is centrally managed (by DCMS/BDUK – not local councils), while the details on how funding and the scheme will work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still to be finalised.

Oliver Dowden MP, UK Digital Secretary, said:

“Project Gigabit is our national mission to level up rural areas by giving them the fastest internet speeds on the market.

Millions more rural homes and businesses will now be lifted out of the digital slow lane thanks to our mammoth £5 billion investment and one the quickest rollouts in Europe.

This broadband revolution will create jobs, power up businesses and allow everyone to access vital services at lightning fast speed, helping us build back better from the pandemic.”

Naturally, we won’t know the final plan for each of the larger procurement areas, as listed below, until suppliers have been chosen for each of them and a rollout plan is completed. The government have today indicated that the first contracts are expected to commence in May 2022, and we’d normally then expect to see a rollout plan emerge a few months after such an award (i.e. building won’t start until the latter half of 2022). The first rollout phase will include 349,000 premises in Essex, Dorset, Cumbria, Cambridgeshire, Northumberland, Durham, Tyneside, Teesside and Cornwall.

Bidders on the aforementioned LOTS will be required to ensure that their networks are available for use by other ISPs via wholesale (open access). Various operators, both big and small (e.g. Openreach, Cityfibre, Gigaclear, Cityfibre, Virgin Media [VMO2] etc.), are expected to take part and areas with sub-30Mbps speeds will be prioritised, albeit NOT to the exclusion of all else.

On top of this, today it is also being confirmed that the Scottish and Welsh governments and 15 English councils have made at least an extra £26 million available in top-ups to the UK Government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. The scheme, which is available nationwide, covers the costs of a gigabit connection in areas that are particularly difficult to reach, and the top-ups boost the financial help available (i.e. bigger vouchers make it possible to reach some increasingly remote rural areas). Sadly, many councils still appear to be missing from this list, which is likely to disrupt some deployment projects and plans.

NOTE: Some 47,000 homes and businesses have benefited from the rural gigabit voucher scheme so far, with a further 38,000 in the pipeline and millions of pounds in vouchers still available for people to claim.

Finally, we should add that the Government has previously warned that those in the final 1% may still be “prohibitively expensive to reach“, although they’ve recently clarified that less than 0.3% of the country (i.e. under 100,000 premises) are likely to fall into this category (roughly the same gap that the 10Mbps USO has struggled to fill). Solutions for those in the final 0.3% of “Very Hard to Reach” premises are currently being explored.

The government concluded by saying that more procurement's are due to be announced “over the coming months” across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, details on the key dates, number of premises and estimated contract value ranges for phases 1a (areas announced in March), 1b and 2 are published in the tables below.

As usual, these won’t be automatic upgrades for consumers, so once the new network is built then you’ll still need to order it from a supporting ISP.

Additional info on the table: Contract commencement date: The expected start date of the new commercial activity. Number of premises: The number of premises in scope of the procurement and expected to be uncommercial and require public funding – either as modelled by DCMS or as superseded following Public Review and Pre-Procurement Market Engagement. This value may change significantly leading up to commencement of the procurement process Indicative contract value: Low – An indicative lower bound on the expected contract value – determined by applying a relatively low average subsidy per premises passed to the number of premises expected to be in scope and affordable. High – An indicative upper bound on the expected contract value – determined by applying a relatively high average subsidy per premises passed to the number of premises expected to be in scope and affordable.

Alongside all this, the government are conducting various public reviews and OMRs, which is the process that they and local bodies often use when trying to identify existing commercial coverage of gigabit-capable broadband networks and any planned coverage over the next c.3 years. By doing that, they can more easily target their support towards areas where commercial projects are not expected to reach (i.e. the intervention area).

A few more details from BDUK. On the next (future) set of Regional Supplier procurement's (Phase 3) following Phases 1 and 2, the following locations are currently being listed (we don’t know in what order these will actually be announced yet):

● Birmingham and the Black Country (Lot 35) Cheshire (Lot 17) ● Devon & Somerset (Lot 6) ● Herefordshire & Gloucestershire (Lots 15, 18) ● Dorset (Lot 14) (note some Local Supplier contracts are being progressed here) ● Essex (Lot 21) (note some Local Supplier contracts are being progressed here) ● Lincolnshire (including NE Lincolnshire and N Lincolnshire) and East Riding (Lot 23) ● Greater London (Lot 37) ● Merseyside and Greater Manchester (Lot 36) ● Newcastle and North Tyneside (Lot 38) ● Northern North Yorkshire (Lot 31) ● Remaining projects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not incorporated in earlier phases (Lots TBC)

So-called “Regional Supplier” procurement's are important (most likely involving major operators), but are just one tool in the delivery toolkit. In areas where the Regional Supplier procurement is scheduled later, BDUK say they are working with local authorities to accelerate “Local Supplier” procurement's (typically each Lot covering 1,000–8,000 premises) and to encourage and facilitate voucher-funded projects, where these deliver greater benefit in the short term. Essex and Dorset (Phases 1 and 2) are both Local Supplier procurement's, while the rest are regional (so far).

Separately, we note that there have been a couple of changes since March 2021, which mostly reflects the impact from Openreach’s expanded commercial FTTP rollout (i.e. BDUK have tweaked several Lots to make them more attractive). The two previously announced Cornwall lots (Lots 32 and 33) have been merged. On top of that, the lots around Cumbria (Lot 28), Northumberland (34), Durham, South Tyneside and Tees Valley (4) will also be reconfigured to more closely align to county boundaries.

Finally, the Government are also making available up to £90 million of additional funding to extend contracts awarded under the previous Superfast Broadband (SFBB) programme, which are already delivering gigabit access to some of the hardest to reach premises that cannot currently get “superfast” speeds (30Mbps). “We are particularly targeting contracts in the devolved nations (set out below) and specific pockets within England, where we are seeking suitable, value for money proposals from existing suppliers,” said BDUK.

● Following the £4.5 million boost for Scotland’s R100 Central contract to extend gigabit coverage to an additional 5,000 premises (here), we are exploring the opportunity to deliver further gigabit coverage through the R100 Northern contract. ● We are exploring further opportunities for gigabit-capable solutions through Northern Ireland’s Project Stratum (here) and through Superfast Wales (here). ● There remains a small number of contracts within England with the potential for extension, however these are more likely to be superseded by Project Gigabit Regional or Local Supplier procurement's.

Original article by Mark Jackson of ISPreview

Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments.

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