The Broadband Journey
In 2011 Ofcom estimated that only 3% of homes and businesses in East Sussex had access to superfast broadband (24+mbps), putting the county in the fourth quintile nationally. Private sector business plans were at that time estimated to extend coverage to only around 35%. This was due to a number of factors but predominantly the rural topology of some areas (high infrastructure cost), areas of deprivation (low demand) and the dispersed nature of the population across the county.
There are 64 exchanges in East Sussex. At that time, only one exchange (Uckfield) was enabled to deliver fibre with another 14 announced for upgrade by the private sector in 2012 (Crowborough, Peacehaven, Eastbourne, Hastings, Lewes, Seaford, Newhaven, Hailsham, Polegate, Pevensey, Bexhill, Baldslow, Hampden Park, Pevensey Marina). This left 49 exchanges to be tackled either through further private sector investment or public sector intervention. Subsequently, 4 further exchanges were announced for upgrade by the private sector (Battle, Rye, Castleham, Cooden), leaving the remainder in scope for public sector investment, ie in areas that the private sector considered financially unviable. In addition, investment in more urban areas was required to bridge gaps where the private sector did not invest previously, including business/industrial parks.
The eSussex project, led by East Sussex County Council in partnership with Brighton and Hove City Council, was developed to improve connectivity by investing in infrastructure. At that time, the Government set itself a target of 90% superfast coverage across the UK by 2016 with access to at least 2mbps for everyone, and made available £530m nationally. Following approval from ESCC’s Cabinet, a procurement which used a “call-off” from the Government’s Framework (BT Group and Fujitsu were named suppliers on the Framework), a contract was signed in May 2013 to deliver a 3 year programme of infrastructure improvements, using £22m of public funding.
Contract 1 completed deployment in 2016 on time, on budget and on target, having upgraded all remaining exchanges in the county. It connected 70,400 premises to fibre infrastructure with 56,200 of these at superfast speeds (24Mbps+).
Whilst the first project achieved excellent results in bringing better, more reliable fibre broadband to many areas that would not otherwise have benefitted from upgraded services, there remained properties that had not benefitted. Sometimes this is because properties are not always connected to the nearest street cabinet or indeed to any street cabinet (Exchange Only lines); or they are too far away from their nearest cabinet to benefit from a fibre upgrade (speeds degrade over very long copper length from the fibre cabinet back to the home/business). A second project was needed to help overcome these issues in order to further extend the reach of fibre broadband across the county and further increase speeds.
At the same time the Government had set itself a new target of providing superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of December 2017. In June 2015 ESCC signed a second contract, using a budget of £6m public funding covering East Sussex only. Again, a “call-off” from the Government’s procurement Framework was used, although this time only BT remained as a supplier, Fujitsu having withdrawn.
BT began deployment using £4m, having initially identified 5,300 premises to be covered. A further 2,600 premises were subsequently identified and were agreed by ESCC to be added into deployment using the entire budget available. Delivery, now making a total of 7,900 premises, was re-profiled. The second project was completed in 2019 on budget and on time, having connected a further 9,479 premises to fibre infrastructure with 7,026 of these at superfast speeds (24Mbps+)
ESCC signed a third contract with BT in February 2018, following an open procurement process (known as OJEU, Official Journal of the European Union) open to all telecoms suppliers.
BT was originally contracted to deliver 7,220 superfast premises by March 2020 and were required to carry out surveys in advance of any work, as opposed to quarterly as with previous contracts.
As expected, the survey work has led to changes needing to be made to the original contract, including the commercial terms. This process has been complex and time-consuming, with BT submitting many updated proposals following discussion and negotiation.
During this time, BT has continued to carry out work on the ground at their own risk, with over 600 premises connected to ultrafast (1000Mbps) broadband as a result.
In March 2020, changes to the contract were agreed by the County Council, Building Digital UK (BDUK) and BT, having ensured that the proposals met state aid rules and delivered value-for-money.
The updated contract will deliver 5,586 superfast premises for a budget of £4.3m and is forecast to be completed by December 2021. Details can be found in the news section and on the postcode checker.
The Government has set clear, ambitious targets for the future of telecoms infrastructure (see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/future-telecoms-infrastructure-review).
The County Council is now in discussion with BDUK about the National Rural Gigabit Connectivity and Full Fibre projects and how these can be used in East Sussex.
The Council is also developing some ideas about how it can continue to work with communities, including potentially using match-funding on local projects. We’ll keep you updated as these plans develop.