Local Authority Project Initiated – Case Study

Maldon District Rural Broadband Pilot

Background

The District of Maldon is made up of the market town of Maldon and the Dengie Peninsula forms a sizeable, largely rural, area of East Essex. It is located 40 miles N.E. of London and has over 60 miles of coastline. It retains a special character forged over the centuries by the Districts three rivers and the North Sea. Sea trade has played an important role in the region’s history, and still does.

Sea Salt (favoured by famous chefs) is still harvested from the Blackwater. Other traditional industries such as barge repairing, boat building, sail making and oyster fishing still thrive and grain is still delivered by boat at Fullbridge Quay.

Maldon, principal town of the area, was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Nestling on the north bank of the River Crouch, amid the wild Dengie Marshes is Burnham-on-Crouch.

The estuaries are internationally recognised for their wildlife. Many opportunities exist for bird watchers, artists and walkers to explore the coast and countryside via an extensive network of footpaths.

Maldon and the Dengie Peninsula

The Project

Throughout the duration of the economic downturn, Essex County Council (ECC) is committed to helping Small and Medium Enterprise businesses (SME’s) and the wider business community. Using the Community Wellbeing powers of the Local Government Act 2000, ECC sought to address the market failure conditions occurring in several parts of the county relating to the lack of high-speed broadband availability (at least 4 Mbps). Whilst most urban areas within the county enjoyed good to excellent broadband connectivity, more remote rural areas did not.

ECC recognised and appreciated that market conditions would eventually enable universal access to high speed broadband in the future, however for many rural based businesses and communities, the availability and access to high-speed broadband, might come too late. The Essex Rural Commission, instigated by Essex County Council (ECC) identified the lack of high speed connectivity as a major limiting factor on the rural economy, preventing many business sectors; high – technology, creative and media firms, from establishing themselves in areas that would otherwise be ideal for such innovation. Essex County Council took the decision to make funding available to support the development of a high speed broadband solution to selected rural areas.

The Pilot

In November 2009, ECC allocated £30,000 towards a pilot project for the area which in land mass terms covers more than 200 square miles. The objective was to select a supplier to deliver broadband services to the entire area and that funding for the pilot should be used to kick start the project by assisting the chosen supplier financially to roll out the initial services.

The main objectives of the funding were to:

  • Make available a high-speed service to at least 80% of homes and businesses in the area
  • The bandwidth speed would be at least 4Mbps as both upload and download (synchronous)
  • Once implemented the service would be solely supported by the supplier using the income from subscriber tariffs
  • Different bandwidth and speed options were to be available to meet user needs
  • All infrastructure and on-going maintenance support was the suppliers responsibility
  • Ideally a county based supplier should to be chosen

Project Timescales

The timescales set for the project were aggressive with the successful supplier expected to implement a core service ready for customer connections within three months of the funding award. The outline timescales are shown below:

  • October 2009 – ECC issued a short supplier briefing document
  • November 2009 – a supplier selection panel was formed
  • January 2010 – the supplier decision was made
  • February to May 2010 – the initial core infrastructure was installed
  • 10th May 2010 – official launch held in Maldon Town.
  • 1st June 2010 – service available for customer connections


Business and Commercial Assessment

The Business Link Essex team was engaged within the supplier selection process and carried out an assessment of each supplier.  The assessment was completed using supplier interviews and reviews of each company trading profile.  A tabular report was compiled for each supplier which was used together with the supplier selection matrix but concentrated on commercial elements associated with each supplier.

In some cases the subjects covered by the commercial evaluation matched those subjects reviewed in the supplier selection matrix and therefore provided additional and complimentary insight for each supplier.

  • The commercial analysis and assessment covered the following areas:
  • Staff employed and make up on a full and part-time basis
  • Company financing and overdraft requirements
  • The suppliers view of the invitation to tender
  • Marketing intentions
  • Other initiatives
  • Charging proposition – monthly subscriptions, installation and other charges
  • Target market – approach to customer take up
  • Customer support – how will this operate
  • Collection of subscriptions
  • Project fulfilment – importance of grant
  • Grant or Loan
  • Use of Grant
  • Main Infrastructure location and additional equipment needed for project
  • Planned technology to be employed

Project Summary

The successful supplier was chosen following the completion of the supplier selection phase using the information highlighted from the selection matrix, the commercial report produced by the Business Link team and the risk assessment associated with the technical, operational and commercial solutions presented.

The supplier selection phase was completed within the project timescales and a supplier identified to receive the pilot funding.  The selection process used was designed to be simple to understand but as efficient as practical.  Each panel member found they were able to successfully contribute to the process without needing to be an expert in a specific field.

The suppliers were broadly similar in approach in their tender response documentation and responses to the supplier selection panel clarification questions and queries.  One supplier responded to questions and queries in a timelier manner than the other.

The commercial analysis carried out by the Business Link team indicated the suppliers were operating on low margin and low profitability forecasts.  In both cases the equipment planned to be deployed for the project was already in use within the suppliers existing network and stock availability appeared adequate.  No non-standard or specialist equipment was planned to be used, making multi sourcing of equipment possible to match demand forecasts.  Each supplier was prepared to accept the operating recommendations suggested by the Business Link team.

Both suppliers offered broadly similar technical solutions with variations largely resulting from the differences in how the core network infrastructure was to be deployment in terms of the towers/high buildings to be used.  The customer or user connection methods were identical in terms of the type of technology proposed, however one supplier proposed an additional and alternate network meshing solution for more densely populated areas which appeared innovative.  This network mesh proposal was noted in the risk register as having a high probability of failure by the technical team.  Mitigation solution to this risk was identified if necessary.

When the solution was finally implemented the network meshing solution did not live up to expectations and end user connections were made using traditional point to point links between the network access points and the consumer or business locations.

The project has been in operating successfully for 9 months and take up of service has been good within the target area.  In excess of 400 users have been connected in the 9 month timeframe.  No major service failures have been experienced and the project is viewed as being highly successful by ECC and Maldon District Council, the successful supplier and the customers connected to the service.

Supplier Selection Process

To help with supplier selection, a panel was formed under the direction of the ECC Regeneration Officer. The primary role for this panel included

  • Project Management – created the project milestones and risk register
  • Supplier technical evaluation
  • Supplier reference checks – customer service and history
  • Supplier credit history and financial appraisal

The panel had a total of six members, with a mix of county and district officers and two Parish Council volunteers. The technical evaluation of the supplier’s capability was made by three members of the panel who evaluated the suppliers written responses to the tender document together with responses to written queries that arose as the supplier analysis progressed. Two out of the three technical panel members each had more than 20 years’ experience within the telecommunications industry. The panel project manager was a member of the technical panel.

The county council member retained responsibility for the supplier financial appraisal using a county business link team. Using an external team to produce a financial analysis of the potential suppliers helped speed up the overall selection process and used specialists to create a report on the suppliers that was not biased by any other facet of the supplier selection programme.

Two members of the supplier selection panel carried out reference interviews with existing clients, these being completed on the telephone. A simple non-technical matrix was produced to record the findings for each supplier.

Supplier Selection – Summary Differentiators

To assist in the supplier selection process, a simple matrix table was drawn up that when completed, compared the scores achieved by one supplier compared to the other. The main purpose of the matrix was to ensure that each supplier was evaluated against the same criteria using a points system. The supplier scoring the highest total number of points would indicate the winner of this selection phase.

The supplier selection matrix together with the supplier differentiators’ questions is shown in tabular form below. For each “Subject” heading each supplier was rated by comparison with the other supplier using a simple points system. Each panel member completed the matrix independently. Where a panel member felt they were not qualified to rate the supplier against a specific question heading they were asked to place a score of zero against each supplier for that entry.

The scoring took the form as defined below:

  • 0 – No information supplied OR very little making its value irrelevant in terms of decision making OR the panel member does not feel qualified to answer the question.
  • 1 – Denotes information supplied but not as comprehensively or clearly as either expected or in comparison to the other supplier.
  • 2 – Denotes better scoring supplier.

Important Note – The scoring and associated comments shown in the sample matrix table below does not reflect the actual circumstances relating to this project. The example is for information only and as a guide to how such a matrix table could be used in a similar project. Where more suppliers are evaluated then a wider scoring range might be required.

INSERT SUPPLIER SELECTION TABLE