Thursday, October 5, 2017

Norfolk UK Prep £13m Bid for “Full Fibre” Broadband Funding and Vouchers

The Norfolk County Council (NCC) will next week debate the prospect of making a bid worth £13m to the UK Government's new £200m Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) programme, which could help to bring Gigabit class FTTP broadband services to public sector sites and businesses.

At present the regional Better Broadband for Norfolk (BBfN) project with Openreach (BT) is already working to ensure that 90% of the county can access a "superfast broadband" (24Mbps+) network by the end of 2017 (they're on-target to achieve this) and after that they intend to expand the coverage to 95% by March 2020 (here). The council recently published an update on the progress of this project.

Since then the Government has also launched a £10m pilot of their new £200m LFFN programme, which aims to "test innovative ways" of using ultrafast "full fibre" (FTTP/H) networks to connect businesses, homes and public sector sites across the United Kingdom. In keeping with that the NCC has already submitted an Expression of Interest (EOI) worth £13m.

The prospect of a formal bid is due to be discussed at next week's meeting of the council's Digital Innovation and Efficiency Committee on 12th October 2017, which outlines the following plan.

Scope of Norfolk's Proposed Bid

The DCMS LFFN programme will include four main themes: harnessing long-term public sector internet demand, providing gigabit connection vouchers to increase business take-up, upgrading connections into public buildings with fibre and improving access to publicly-owned infrastructure.

Although the Gigabit Voucher Scheme and Full Fibre Upgrades for Public Sector Sites streams are expected to form the body of Norfolk's Challenge Fund bid. The expression of interest submitted demonstrates that Norfolk will create an integrated programme involving all four themes.

Public Sector Anchor Tenancy

Norfolk's public sector organisations are currently identifying operational buildings where service delivery would be enhanced by full fibre connections, e.g. academy schools where Norfolk County Council host wireless (microwave) telecommunication hardware and there is benefit in switching to full fibre links.

Gigabit Voucher Scheme

Both interest in, and take-up of the Government's Broadband Subsidy Scheme in Norfolk has been amongst the highest in the UK. This demonstrates Norfolk can generate interest and then ensure this translates into take-up of a voucher scheme of the type proposed.

Norfolk organisations have worked together to consider the likely requirements for a Full Fibre Voucher Scheme and how best to promote it. The following is seen as key:

– A Voucher Scheme which is customer driven, bottom up not top down from suppliers.

– Gigabit capable solutions, with customers able to purchase only the bandwidth needed, but able to easily increase capacity when their need grows. Allowing up-scaling over time.

– Grants reflecting actual cost to deploy, not a standard sum which could result in either grants exceeding the actual costs to deploy, or disadvantaging more rural businesses where implementation costs are higher and therefore excess civils costs may be payable.

– Options such as self-dig should be available to reduce the overall solution implementation cost, where the customer has the capacity to do this.

Norfolk has practical examples where this has worked well, making solutions affordable when they would not otherwise have been.

Full Fibre Upgrades for Public Sector Sites

The public sector in Norfolk is beginning to explore the concept of Digital Hub sites where residents and businesses can access a full range of integrated digital based services from multiple organisations. Digital Hub sites would be located around Norfolk, offering digital ways to access services, for instance video calls to access specialist health consultations.

It is envisaged these sites will offer Full Fibre Business Incubators Units, providing not just access to high speed broadband but a wide range of specialist support and advice services, to support start-ups.

This approach is understood not to require state aid approval, as it would be similar to procuring a public sector network, albeit asset ownership requirements will need to be considered to ensure there are no state aid implications.

Reuse of Public Sector Infrastructure Assets

Norfolk County Council is conducting an audit of public sector owned assets that could be exploited. These include: office buildings, fire towers, wind turbines & retained schools. Property assets would be documented on an asset inventory which would be made available to support relevant activities associated with the other themes.

Many other local authorities have also put together similar proposals and as usual the biggest risk is that quite a few of those may end up being rejected, particularly given the limited pot of money (£200m isn't much to spread around when you're talking about expensive "full fibre" networks).

NOTE: Match funding isn't required for these bids, although the Government are deemed "more likely" to support proposals which either have "co-investment from bidders (capital funding or committed service charges over several years), or those projects that are most likely to encourage additional investment from other parties." Norfolk's bid is understood to involve multiple organisations working as a consortium.

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