Advice for prospective community projects

Rural broadband is notoriously poor.   85 residents did something about it in rural Surrey and bought 2 FTTC broadband cabinets and 4km of fibre to bring Superfast broadband speeds to their hamlet serving 118 homes.

In running our campaign and project we learnt a lot in the 3 years. Here are some of those lessons and our advice to those who wish to follow us:

Get a team:

Establish 2-4 people who can carry the burden of running the rural broadband campaign and the resulting project over the 3 years it might take.  Complimentary skills are essential.  In our case we had someone to handle the sightly techie stuff, the statistical analysis of the catchment areas and build the presentation materials.  We also had a retired accountant who was a master of diplomacy and pragmatism and undertook much of the legwork in engaging with the community as well as the extensive liaison with Openreach.  He had a good grasp of the challenge of creating  a company to handle the contract and the funding.  We had a key “player’ – someone with connections and acquaintances that proved valuable in moving the project at pace.  Understanding the political elements of our quest was vital.  All of us were motivated to “get this done” – without getting bogged down by the frustrations of dealing with Local Authorities and big corporations, nor being distracted by “what should have been”. Supporting us were experts from the within our community: lawyers, experts in 4G comms., journalists.

We also enlisted the support of cluster champions – people who knew everyone in their respective small groups of houses and who were up for ensuring everyone was included and motivated to hear the results of the campaign team’s research, and act upon it.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 09.54.53Information is vital:

Know what you are talking about – where are the lines, the catchment areas, the residents’ email addresses and phone numbers, the broadband speeds, the distances to cabinets, number of lines at each home.  Have it all at your fingertips on a spreadsheet and map it.  This data will be more than BT have and will be advantageous when you can assess the viability of any potential project.  Gather it from door step canvassing or an online survey. Even interrogate (gently) the engineers that visit your home to fix the line. Every bit of info gives you more power – to understand the challenges and the limitations, to negotiate with Openreach, and to deal with ISPs and the community.  It will save you money.

Do your research:

Talk to other community campaign teams, and to independent community broadband providers like Gigaclear, Callflow etc.  – although most say they can’t help.

Decide on the key selling points for the proposed scheme:

In our case we had decided on a single solution so needed to explain our rationale based on the following points:

  1. House value protection was a key point that resonated with many – even those that disregarded broadband as important.
  2. Agree that Superfast is not coming unless we do something about it now.
  3. A plain vanilla solution to extend and join the Openreach UK fibre network was seen as a compelling reason to go the route we eventually adopted.
  4. Wait and see would result in nothing happening.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 09.56.24Make the funding fair:

We knew that the project would fail if we didn’t include the largest proportion of the community that would benefit from the scheme. The burden of paying for the scheme would be unacceptable to many if there was a high proportion of residents not contributing and effectively getting superfast for free.  We were aware of the “unadopted road mentality” – people living for years with a pot-holed rubble strewn road that never gets surfaced because not everyone agrees on how to pay for it, or that it wasn’t fair if someone freeloaded.  So we made it clear that if the funds don’t come in then the scheme will be scrapped.   We knew from other schemes that a contribution level of 60% was possible – but that was in a single cluster of homes on a scheme that was much cheaper than our own.  Our 7 dispirate clusters would mean there was less community focus nor obvious affinity between groups.

We concluded early on that if we hit the 60% target and everyone had paid equally it would equate to a cost per home (£1100) that was unviable for many of the residents. We decided to go with the “pay what you can afford” approach. A lot of statistical analysis and modelling resulted in a contribution plan with 3 criteria:

  1. Pay according to the Council Tax Band of your home (we gave guidance as to the minimum contribution figures per band we’d need)
  2. Pay 0.1% of the value of your home
  3. Pay what you can afford

That was communicated by way of personal presentations at Cheese and Faceplate Parties.   We enlisted the help of neighbourhood “champions” who could gather neighbours together and host an informal evening.  We ran 7 of these evenings with around 12-20 people attending each – we kept it light and positive ( to avoid descending into a Cheese and Whine evening) – we even showed our ice breaker funny viral videos to acknowledge that we were all in a communal pickle.

FTTC superfast

How FTTC works for getting superfast speeds to rural villages

We made a conscious decision not to let Openreach do any presentations to the communities – we felt it would have been counter productive.
Using a Keynote presentation to cover the research we’d done, we explained the technical options we had considered, the reasoning behind choosing Openreach, the business case for private funding a solution, the benefits, the risks, the timescale and the cost.  We also gave everyone a short deadline to pledge or pay their contribution.  All contributions would be confidential.

We were frank in our approach: “forget if you want or don’t want superfast – for 0.1% of the value of your house, we can increase the value of your house by 3%… oh, and you get Superfast broaband as well”.  That struck a chord with everyone.

We also set a contributions target, which if we fell short would mean we would abandon the project – we didn’t want residents holding back in the hope others would make up the difference.  We also announced that we already had a significant proportion pledged – secured in early negotiations.

Within 4 weeks we had 90% of the target pledged or paid into the Limited Company account we created for the project.  Over 95% of those that attended our parties went on to contribute to the fund.  The impetus for getting the funding in place was to sign the contract with Openreach and get our delivery date fixed in their busy schedules. Ours would be a fast track 12 months project from contract signing to “ready for service”. (yes, do ask us how that worked out in the end!)

The upside:

It is notable how positive the campaign and fledgeling project has been in bringing the community together – neighbours talking, sharing expertise, volunteering, and of course digging deep into their pockets to fund the project for a common benefit.  People now know everyone – have a common challenge (or enemy!)  to unite them, and bring the best out of a community. That factor is not to be underestimated.

Dealing with BT and BT Openreach

We have learnt a lot in the 2-3 years we have been working alongside Openreach. On balance it has been, at times, a tortuous process and not for the feint-hearted.  Our observations to those considering contracting Openreach is this:

You are not their customer:

Openreach regard the cabinets and infrastructure as theirs from the outset. The fact that you have paid a huge amount of money for it is irrelevant in their eyes, and they’d rather they never have to talk to you for the 18 months that you are paying for them to install their kit. They are not used to communicating with residents – and it shows. Much as we tried to collaborate with Openreach to make their life easier, it was resisted. We offered to use our local knowledge to oil the wheels, prepare the ground for the planners approval, landowners permissions, expedite wayleave agreements, get local residents on board with aesthetics and position of cabinet locations, provide data on homes with multiple lines, log faults, organise a phased launch, establish a test and troubleshoot plan…. everything to reduce the risk of project slippage and ensure a successful roll out.

Don’t rely on what they tell you:

They will promise a lot, and might even put a tiny bit of it in writing – but do not trust a word of it. They’ll assure you VAT is refundable, or that their costings are immovable, or that you’ll have an account handler.   Question everything.  They will assure you that they’ll be responsive and keep you informed, but you will have to be very proactive to get information from them. Get the project manager’s mobile number…. if they don’t give you one, walk away.

Addendum: HMRC subsequently adjudicated that VAT will not be applicable to Gap Funded projects as Openreach normally retain ownership of newly installed infrastructure.

Don’t expect much:

Openreach won’t breakdown the cost for you. They won’t justify anything. They won’t tell you where the fibre route is coming from, nor tell you how many lines you have in your area. (indeed they won’t know so getting your own data is essential). Your contract will be a couple of A4 sheets – there will be no leeway for your own clauses or contractual niceties. It will appear they just want your money.

They will say there is no room for negotiation and they will fob you off with the phrase “commercially sensitive” and “business templates” as justification for not being open as you sign away many thousands of pounds.

Deadlines are meaningless:

Plan for it to take longer than they tell you.   They will miss their own deadlines repeatedly when responding to questions, project updates or providing reports.  This will happen because Openreach are inundated with Gap Funded projects and Local Authority contracts, as well as their own roll out of fibre. They are also heavily reliant on sub-contractors – which adds a significant latency to all projects. Openreach are just not nimble enough to respond effectively nor timely.  Openreach, and more often BT Group overseeing Openreach, are more aligned to keeping Community Groups at arms length than being proactive, and they’ll sound like PR departments more often than your business partners.

Be tenacious:

You won’t get very far if you pay the cash and wait for delivery. You will have to work hard to get Openreach to hit their deadline and for the superfast to meet the speeds promised.

Good luck.

If you’d like to know more about how to get superfast for your own community, then just drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.


Additional opinion piece of the Openreach approach to Co-funding.


GU8 Superfast Community Project Team

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