A letter from council critic Des Morgan
At a recent meeting of Swindon Council’s planning committee on Tuesday 9 February, councillors threw out UKB Networks plans to obtain planning permission for the erection of five masts in North Swindon. But according to UKBN the setback is not going to stop the progress of this scheme, a view shared by Cllr Mary Martin who leads for the Cabinet on Broadband issues.
According to some councillors it is a vocal minority who are campaigning against the siting of UKBN’s mast network inferring their actions are depriving the silent majority of the benefit of superfast broadband. I suggest that argument is a little too simplistic and fails to address the technical issues and more importantly ignores a truth which some councillors have been reluctant to highlight, whilst others simply do not understand.
The technical issue is quite simple – 4G LTE isn’t the flavour of the month and it certainly isn’t cutting edge technology but it is commonly used by most of the mobile phone networks. What the people want, what they really, really want is fibre technology and it is a crying shame that when the new estates of North Swindon were built the planners didn’t insist on developers making provision for a fibre broadband system.
But back to UKBN and their plans. Readers will recall that in 2012 nine masts were erected by UKB to provide coverage to 67,000 households, a figure confirmed last week by UKBN’s marketing guru Will Harnden. However the progress of the scheme as defined by actual take up of the broadband service by Swindon residents has not been revealed. The success or failure of the project is simply not known. The council actually don’t seem to be at all concerned with the number of customers using UKBN’s system, just in the fact there is a system available.
At the 2012 launch of UKB’s scheme Cllr Garry Perkins said: “There will be a market. I’m certain there will be a market. Companies like UK Broadband will not just step into it without knowing there’s a market there”
He went on to state: “They have a very professional team on sales and marketing which will draw these customers in, so I don’t doubt that UK Broadband have got a very strong business plan.”
Within a few short months any pretence at marketing the scheme which was branded ‘Now Broadband’ was abandoned, its Swindon office closed and a third party seller was engaged. So much for “I’m certain there will be a market” and a very professional sales and marketing team, it appears there was neither.
For those who have followed the broadband saga through its various incarnations the importance of marketing and selling being the key to success was heavily promoted, the measurement of success was always related to the number of customers who purchased the scheme offer. It was no surprise that the funding for the previous scheme (the farce known as Digital City) was subject to a number of key targets one of which was the number of paying customers. All of us will recognise the sense in wanting to know what appetite there is for a scheme before committing more money. In the case of UKB’s 2012 scheme it seems that no one at SBC is interested in the number of people using the system.
To gift UKBN a further £2 million of public money as part of the current scheme to create a system which we don’t know if hardly anyone uses seems on the face of it to be quite absurd – though not to the political elite sitting in Euclid Street. With little if any proof of success in actually providing a commercially sustainable superfast broadband, the UKBN scheme appears very similar to when SBC gave £400,000 to Mr Rikki Hunt back in 2011. His system worked but he simply couldn’t sell it.
According to Councillors the main thrust of UKBN’s scheme was to provide superfast broadband to the rural areas of the Borough, remember they had already built a system which catered for 67,000 Swindon households. If that is the case, surely the route to be pursued is to erect the masts identified in eight planning applications submitted to SBC which will service the rural areas of Wroughton, Castle Eaton, Highworth, Bishopstone, South Marston and Blunsdon.
Much is made of the broadband speeds being enjoyed by residents of Chiseldon who are now able to download a short film in minutes whereas it used to take days. That claim was first made in March 2015 almost a full twelve months ago, clearly very little has occurred since to convince the sceptics that UKBN is a company committed to a speedy resolution of superfast broadband implementation.
Having taken the ‘public shilling’ it is in our interests for UKBN to reveal the actual signing up of customers and it is definitely a question the council should be asking.
But far worse, in my opinion, is the council’s lack of interest in determining whether the council tax payer is actually getting value for money. After all and irrespective of which purse the money is paid from, it is ‘our money’.