Community or Business Related – Case Study

West Bergholt – Essex – (www.westbergholt.net)

Background

West Bergholt is a village located on the outskirts of Colchester Town and is separated from the urban sprawl by the A12 link connecting London to East Anglia.  The village is just 5 minutes from a London main line station and is a 50 minute commute time.  With up to five trains operating hourly to London, the village is an extremely attractive location for London commuters and their families to live.

There are in excess of 1,300 homes in the village, several shops, an excellent primary and pre-school both being catchment schools for a number of nearby villages.  West Bergholt is largely self-contained having a doctor’s surgery including a GP training facility, pharmacy and post office located within the medium sized co-op store.  The village is set within a truly rural setting and is surrounded by open countryside and lies within the Colne Valley.

Prior to the community broadband project being implemented West Bergholt  lay within a broadband “slow spot” defined as having a broadband service but of a slow and largely sub-standard nature.  The broadband service for West Bergholt, and the nearby locations of Eight Ash Green and Braiswick operated at speeds of between 348Kbps and 1.5Mbps with the average speed being much less than 1Mbps.  West Bergholt is served by the BT’ Fordham switching exchange located at the limit of acceptable broadband delivery when carried over copper cabling.  The infrastructure used to connect to the exchange as well as the routing within the village is aged and unreliable.  BT own all cabling within and to the village and it as no stated plans to migrate the infrastructure to fibre delivery to either the street cabinet or to the homes.

The village began a Parish Plan engagement programme in June 2008 and when completed the findings were adopted by the Parish Council.  Following due process the Parish Plan was similarly adopted by Colchester Borough Council as a supplemental guidance document which is considered when longer term planning activities are undertaken.

The Parish Plan

The Parish Plan is regarded as an important document because it assists the community in a number of ways including:

  • It documents a process that allows the community to put forward its views on a variety of issues
  • It provides a focus as to what matters to the village, and what aspects of village life are important
  • It acts as a prioritisation process for those projects or initiatives requiring attention
  • Acts as a community strategic planning tool for residential and business needs

The published document defines the plans for the village in a way that allows the Parish Council and other organisations to articulate their views in more formal situations such as Local Plans for Colchester or when applying for grant aid funding for projects.

Through the Parish Plan engagement programme, one of the biggest concerns expressed by residents and businesses alike was the poor quality of the available broadband service.  Improvement to what is now generally regarded as a “utility service” appeared as one of the highest priority items within the plan.

The Project

A working group was formed consisting of Parish Councillors and the Parish Plan Group which began an investigation into why the village had an unacceptable broadband service.  The underlying problem was identified as being the length of cable run between the village and BT’s serving broadband exchange, coupled with the poor quality of cabling infrastructure to and within the village.  An interesting observation was that BT engineers and their vehicles could be found within the village most days of the week either repairing faulty cables or re-routing broadband services over alternate lines within the village.

BT was contacted to determine what plans were in place to upgrade the infrastructure serving the village, much of which dated back to the 1960’s.  During 2009 and 2010 two separate instances of rural cable theft left most of the village without telephony and broadband services for almost a week on each occasion.  Following direct communication with Ian Livingstone, CEO of BT, and being informed that no plans were in place to replace the copper cabling with fibre optic cable, the broadband working group decided to seek an alternative broadband infrastructure supplier.

A study was carried out of alternate broadband suppliers who were not reliant on BT’s network infrastructure to deliver their broadband services.  The working group quickly discounted the possibility of laying fibre to the village or to a central hub within the village from the nearest exchange due to the cost and logistics involved.    The working group concluded that this type of delivery would require continued involvement of community members once delivered and the initial cost was likely to be high.  The use of satellite based services was also quickly discounted because of cost.  This left long range wireless delivery as the most cost effective and practical solution for delivering  broadband into the village.  Suppliers of this technology were therefore approached for further information.

Project Objectives

The working group set the project objectives as follows:

  • That a fully managed service would be sought where the infrastructure and daily management was the responsibility of a single supplier
  • The community would not own or be responsible for any equipment deployed within the village
  • The service must have a minimum useful life expectancy of five years but any community contract entered into with the supplier would be for a maximum three year term
  • The minimum broadband speed supplied would be 4Mbps download and 500Kbps upload.
  • A 24 hour service was required but fault repair would be during normal working day hours.
  • Grants would be sought to cover the village infrastructure costs and where necessary on a “match fund” basis through the Parish Council
  • Users and businesses would pay individual monthly subscriptions and installation costs
  • Key community locations – village halls and the schools would be provided with broadband at zero charge

Project Stages

A public meeting was held in the village hall and the numbers attending further confirmed the demand for a quality broadband service has very high.  A working party was formed and the project chairman and project manager were appointed. The stages of the project were discussed and the outline milestone activities agreed as:

  • Form a broadband demand survey team –volunteers were identified at the public meeting
  • Carry out a demand survey of each household and business
  • Supplier identification and engagement
  • Community technical survey – carried out with the potential suppliers
  • Compile the cost model to install the community infrastructure
  • Funding sources identified and applications made
  • Supplier selection and contracts agreed
  • Initial service trial
  • Full service roll out to users and businesses

During each milestone phase the wider community was kept informed of progress made using posters, notice boards, the village web site, and village magazine.  The Parish Council had an agenda item each month to report on progress or issues.

Supplier Selection Process

The project was a community engagement programme and working party sought a local supplier with a track record of successful broadband delivery.  Ideally the supplier should appreciate how communities like West Bergholt operate and run their affairs.  It was envisaged the supplier would need to act as a broadband partner for the village.

The supplier was responsible for:

  • Technical specification ownership and management of the equipment installed
  • Day to day operational management
  • Sales and marketing the service
  • Advice and assistance in carrying out the demand and technical survey
  • Providing cost information to the working party for funding application submissions
  • Attending the working party meetings as required

The broadband working party were responsible for:

  • keeping the community informed of progress
  • identifying funding sources and completing application documentation
  • interfacing with the Parish Council
  • distribution, collection and analysis of the broadband survey results
  • providing the supplier with local knowledge as part of the technical site survey

The choice as to the supplier of the broadband service was an easy decision for the working party to make.  One supplier – County Broadband Ltd stood out as a true partner and this small Essex based company worked closely with the working group, the Parish Council and the community throughout the demand and discovery stages and carried this through to service implementation and delivery when selected as the preferred supplier.

Project Challenges

The main project challenges were associated with determining the initial technical delivery of the wireless link between the village and the supplier’s network and identifying suitable funding sources during a severe economic downturn.

The residential parts of West Bergholt are largely confined within an area that is at the top of a hill.  To maximise village coverage, a location was needed at the highest point of the village as a network feed point which had clear line of site to the supplier’s core network.  From the network feed point it was calculated that up to six community access points would be required to provide service to 90% of residents and businesses in the parish.

When the provisioning costs were determined this allowed the working group to apply for funding and applications were submitted by the Parish Council as it had bank accounts in place for paying in any grant award.  Funding availability within county sources and external organisation was greatly restricted for most of the 2010 financial year and even with the offer of Parish Council matched funding, insufficient funds were available to provide a full service to the entire village.  Fortunately £3,000 was awarded to the village by the East Essex Area Forum, this grant being matched by an equal amount from the Parish Council.

County Broadband formulated a reduced village network plan that would provide a service to approximately 60% of all locations within the parish.  This plan was accepted and in October 2010 the network feed point was installed and a limited number of users were connected to the service for testing during a trial period.  Full service availability began in November 2010 and approximately 5 installations can be carried out per week as and when residents choose to migrate to the new service.

Project Timescales

The main project milestone dates were as follows

December 2009 – Broadband Public Meeting held

January 2010 – Working group inaugural meeting

January to March – supplier identification and initial discussions

March – Outline business case developed and funding applications completed

March to August 2010 – awaited outcome of funding applications

September 2010 – supplier confirmed as County Broadband Ltd

September 2010 – revised village network plan formulated and approved

October 2010 – network feed point installed and trial service began

November 2010 – service official launch

November 2010 – EEAF grant award allowing wider coverage

Supplier Selection Process

From a technology basis the suppliers that were evaluated, offered similar solutions with small variations on the charge structure proposed.  County Broadband worked with the broadband working group throughout the procurement phase and paid for the production and mailing (freepost) costs for the demand survey.

County Broadband Ltd was prepared to rework the initial village design when it appeared that insufficient funding would be found.  They were also prepared to offer a funding payback scheme such that the Parish Council would recover its initial outlay when sufficient users were connected to the service.

Broadband speeds offered can be 2Mbps, 4Mbps or 8Mbps and plans are in place to offer users a 20Mbps service during 2011.

Project Summary

This project represents an example of a community lead programme where the demand was identified through a village consultation programme and ultimately the community determined what would be supplied and how it would be implemented.

At each stage of the project, the community were kept informed of progress and volunteers were encouraged to take an active part in the project.

The technology employed and the responsibilities associated with installations etc. has meant that the working group was able to withdraw from active participation once the service was made generally available in the village.  Quarterly meetings will take place during the first year of operation and these will be held between the Parish Council and County Broadband Ltd.  An agreed format for the meetings was established at the first meeting and consists of:

  • Number of users connected
  • Number of applicants waiting connection
  • Enhancement planning regarding service upgrades or enhancements
  • Complaint resolution when and if applicable

A free broadband service was offered to the village hall, primary school and the village church.

As further funding becomes available the service will be extended to more remote parts of the village and user delivered speed increased to 20Mbps.

All other objectives set for the project have been achieved.

It is hoped that the core connectivity supplied to West Bergholt will allow a broadband service to be supplied to the other neighbouring villages that currently have a substandard service.  Some residents in the nearby village of Eight Ash Green have been provided with a broadband service through County Broadband Ltd as a direct result of the project in West Bergholt.