Superfast broadband across Dartmoor? Not so fast just yet

Laura White
Laura White
Openreach engineer in a coastal location. (Photo Openreach)

By Mike Rego

On 24th June, Openreach announced plans to extend their commercial investment in Full Fibre in the UK, to a further 280,000 homes and businesses in the South West, as part of a £15 billion commercial investment in upgrading the UK to faster, more reliable, future-proof broadband (recently upped from £12 billion).

This investment will translate to approximately 85,000 build numbers in Devon, representing an investment of £34 million with eight new exchanges being built in the Devonport, Plymouth, Wembury, Yealmpton, Shiphay and Collaton areas, as part of the plans announced in late May to build ultrafast Full Fibre broadband to some 440,000 homes and businesses in the South West as a whole, with an additional 38 exchanges in Devon. Locations for new exchanges around Dartmoor included Ashburton, Bovey Tracey, Moretonhampstead, North Tawton, South Brent, and Gt Torrington.

Whilst this is all very positive, not everyone is impressed by the rate of implementation of the high speed internet access rollout, particular in rural areas such as in and around Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, and the Blackdown Hills on the Devon-Somerset border, where many urban areas, including those scheduled for new exchanges, are still not due to be upgraded before 2026.

Whilst the various COVID-19 restrictions of the past 18 months have reinforced for many the necessity of having fast reliable internet access for home schooling, ordering food online for home delivery and keeping in touch with loved ones, it is increasingly vital for the many remote small businesses across the region. One man who is not impressed is Graham Long, a Parish Councillor and retired Change Consultant from Upottery in the Blackdown Hills area of East Devon, a founder of B4RDS, a public group on Facebook that has been campaigning for better and faster internet access in Devon and Somerset.

As Graham explains, Superfast Broadband is defined in Europe as download speeds in excess of 30 megabits per second (Mbps), whereas in the UK it was only 24Mbps until as recently as 2016, due in part to the comprehensive but ageing copper wire technology in place, effectively dating back as far as the 1920s. For BT and others, using this system of copper wire technology enabled widespread internet access, albeit at reduced speed and bandwidth, with the advantage of lower equipment costs. A quick online look at reported internet access speed tests shows a rapid drop-off in rural areas on and around Dartmoor (and Exmoor) in particular.

It was only in 2016 that Ofcom managed to make BT Openreach (as then was) accept a minimum limit of 30Mbps for superfast broadband. Recent investment with fibre optic cable installations bringing ‘Fibre to the Cabinet’ has enabled an increase in speeds, but without fibre optic from the exchange cabinet to the home, copper cable distance from the cabinet becomes critical, and the advantage of fibre optic cable decreases rapidly once the signal is transmitted by copper, and any advantage is lost more-or-less completely when there is more than 1.6km of copper cable between the user and the fibre optic cable.

Openreach is currently investing £15 billion in its Full Fibre build programme, which will involve full fibre connections to homes and businesses, enabling internet speeds of 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) — up to 10 times faster than current average home broadband connections — meaning improved connections for working from home, better quality video calls and higher resolution movie streaming, faster game downloads, etc.

Openreach hopes to reach some 25 million premises in the UK by December 2026 with up to four million premises connected per year, but the question remains, why is the UK so far behind the rest of Europe and when will rural areas, particularly regions such as Dartmoor and Exmoor, finally get faster internet connections without users having to pay a premium?

The B4RDS Facebook page explains that the current Connecting Devon & Somerset (CDS) project, run by Devon and Somerset County Councils, still leaves many areas of Devon and Somerset without any improvement in broadband speed, despite £53 million of public money currently being invested in it to date. Phase 1, which was contracted to BT Openreach, started in 2009 focusing on urban areas, and B4RDS blames the incompetence of the CDS Board for failing three times to complete their Phase 2 programme focused on providing 95% Superfast coverage (30Mbps min) to rural areas. Their fourth attempt to contract out Phase 2 resulted in contracts being signed with three suppliers in December 2020 with delivery due to be completed by 2025, making Devon and Somerset the slowest counties in England to complete Phase 2 rollout.

£5 billion was promised by the Government during the December 2019 election campaign to provide Gigabit speed (up to 1,000 Mbps) fibre broadband connections to UK households. Now called Project Gigabit, all county councils were asked to comment on initial proposals for this in December 2020 and on 19th March, 2021, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) published its first plans for £1.2 billion of this investment before 2025. As a result, Cornwall, Dorset, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Hampshire are due to get Project Gigabit investment before 2025, but noticeably, Devon and Somerset will get nothing before 2025 despite being slower at connecting rural properties than the surrounding counties.

Unlike the Superfast programme run by Devon and Somerset County Councils via CDS, Project Gigabit will be run centrally by DCMS from Whitehall. Using a Freedom of Information request, Graham Long has obtained a copy of the CDS response to the DCMS December consultation.

Openreach engineer working on new digital exchange equipment. (Photo Openreach)

Rather than embracing Project Gigabit with open arms, the CDS response questions the value for money of Project Gigabit, suggests it will interfere with existing CDS contracts and says that DCMS should hand the funding to CDS for them to run Project Gigabit across the two counties.

As every other county welcomed Project Gigabit investment, it would appear that DCMS has chosen those counties that welcome it for this investment, meaning that Devon and Somerset will miss out on around £30 million of Project Gigabit investment between now and 2025, and it will take even longer for broadband provision across the two counties to catch up with the rest of the country, whilst CDS fight with DCMS on who runs the project.

It may be quite a while before full fibre ultrafast broadband reaches your home if you are in rural Devon or Dartmoor.
The following weblinks can provide more information on some of the organisations and topics relevant to this article:

B4RDS (fast Broadband for Rural Devon & Somerset) – Public Facebook group campaigning for fast broadband in rural areas of Devon & Somerset.
CDS – Connecting Devon and Somerset
FTTH Council Europe – FTTH Council Europe is an industry association with a mission to advance ubiquitous full fibre-based connectivity to the whole of Europe.
Ofcom – The UK’s Office of Communications, ie: the Government office that regulates broadband, home and mobile telecommunications, television and radio, the postal service and the airwaves.
Openreach – (Note that Openreach became independent from BT in 2018 so is no longer ‘BT Openreach’.)
Openreach – (Link to maps via your postcode to see when you can get access to Ultrafast Full Fibre.)
thinkbroadband – the UK’s largest independent broadband news and information site – maps and statistics on UK Broadband coverage and providers

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