More millions coming for broadband in the county

First published in News Ledbury Reporter: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter

MORE than £5m is coming the county’s way to stretch superfast broadband further.

Fastershire, the joint broadband expansion project the county shares with Gloucestershire, can now consider connecting communities well off the “mainline”.

Fastershire is funded through the government and Herefordshire Council with BT investment.  Through a contract with BT, the project expects to enable approximately 90% of premises by the end of 2016.

A further £5.5m has now been allocated to the county to seek to so-called “ 10% solution”.

Cllr Graham Powell, Cabinet member Broadband, said Fastershire was closing in on its 100% access target but “ the more rural we go the more difficult and expensive it is”.

Additional stages to the strategy include the exploration of the current contract with BT where relevant, two new procurements to increase coverage in the Golden Valley and north west of the county open to any broadband provider, and bursary funding for specific communities, businesses and individuals in the remaining areas.

In September 2012 Cabinet provided delegated approval to the Director for Economy, Communities and Corporate to award the Borders Broadband contract to BT.

This was achieved in December 2012 and the project, since rebranded as Fastershire, has been in delivery for close to a year.

To date over 4,000 premises in Herefordshire have received a fibre service as a result  of the project.

By the end of 2015 85% of premises in the county should have Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband providing download speeds of over 30Mbps.

Additionally, every premise will have access to the government’s Universal Service Commitment of >2Mbps.

The £250m SEP, which will run from 2015, aims to achieve 95% fibre coverage nationally.

From this programme, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire have been offered an indicative allocation of £10.98m split roughly
50/50 between the counties.

While this is one of the largest allocations nationally, it  is acknowledged that this may not enable the authorities to reach 95% coverage indicating the difficulty faced in reaching the final 10-15% in this area.

To leverage the full £11m - £5.5m for Herefordshire which is not in the capital programme would cost approximately £350k a year to fund through borrowing.

The authorities are required to identify the same value in match funding.

During the course of the last year, Fastershire has been working to expand the  external funding available to the project both to in
crease the potential extent of physical access and to encourage the exploitation of broad band by local businesses.

As a result of this work, additional funds found include:

European Regional Development Fund - £657k capital funding from Department of Communities and Local Government to provide broadband grants to businesses in Hereford city centre and on the Rotherwas Enterprise Zone. 

Rural Community Broadband Fund - £620k capital funding from  Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) to fund a contract extension to reach three additional rural communities.

Beyond 2015, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has announced that the new European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) programme 2013-20 can support NGA broadband projects in the final 5%.

Broadband infrastructure and support projects have been identified in the European Investment Fund strategies of both the
Gloucestershire and Marches Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEPs).

It is hoped that the cumulative value of these funds, as well as other sources of  revenue funding, can reduce the burden on the authorities to match the SEP like for like with council cash.

The Fastershire team is involved in negotiating this flexibility with Whitehall.

Should these negotiations be successful, the requirement for cash match from Herefordshire Council may have reduced from around £5.5m to around £1.4m.

As a strategy, Fastershire 2014-18 is based on a five-stage process:

Stage one (to 2013) the contribution of private sector through commercial deployment in Hereford, Ledbury and Leominster areas.

Stage two (to 2016) based on the current contract between fastershire and BT.

Stage three (to 2018) contract extension to BT as additional to the current fastershire contract (subject to negotiations).

Stage four (to 2018) will include specific procurements in consolidated areas of a critical mass within the final 10% areas.  This can be open to any broadband provider as a new procurement.

Stage five (to 2018) will use alternative funding which in the first instance will be grant based funding to those areas which can demonstrate the need for faster broadband.

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