Red tape blamed for slow rollout of superfast broadband in the New Forest

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In the New Forest 93.5% premises are receiving superfast download speeds

EXTENSIVE red tape was blamed for broadband speeds in the New Forest lagging behind those of other areas.

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As previously reported in the A&T, Hampshire County Council is working on phase two of a project that aims to reach over 97% of premises across the county by the end of 2019.

Superfast connections are classified as those which are obtaining a minimum download speed of 24Mbs. Figures show that 93.5% of New Forest premises are receiving superfast download speeds, compared with 96.2% for England and 95% for Hampshire.

The latest meeting of New Forest District Council’s corporate overview and scrutiny panel heard how the area was “a difficult place to operate”.

HCC’s programme director for superfast broadband provision, Glenn Peacey, told the meeting that while planning permission was not needed to install signal boxes, there was a considerable amount of red tape due to numerous SSSI sites.

Permission was also needed from a number of partnership organisations, including the New Forest Verderers, Forestry Commission (FC) and Natural England.

“We need to make sure everyone is happy before we can deliver anything,” he explained. “A few delays have been encountered, but Openreach [which owns, operates and maintains the UK’s phone and broadband lines] has recently agreed new terms with the Forestry Commission.

“The change in mood from the verderers has been huge [under its new leader, Lord Manners], and we seem to get permission granted without going through the [Verderers’] court. This has significantly helped with the superfast broadband delivery in the New Forest.”

He added: “Natural England has been reasonable so far and the national park authority is pretty supportive, as is the district council. The real block for us was the Verderers’ Court in the past and it just stopped everything. They would not commit until everyone else had, but everyone else would not commit until the verderers did. Now all parties are happy to continue.”

Mr Peacey also said there had been issues with the Forestry Commission giving permission for a signal box to be installed in an exact location. He explained that if a problem arose while digging, such as a pipe being identified or overhead cables being found, contractors could not just request to move the box a metre or so either way without a new application having to be made to the FC.

Mr Peacey added: “The New Forest is not as bad as you may think [for internet provision], but it’s not perfect.”

In March, the government introduced legislation for a broadband universal service obligation, which states the minimum download speed any premises should receive is 2Mbs. Premises falling under the 2Mbs minimum level are eligible to apply to the county council for a £350 subsidy to install and set up a satellite or fixed wireless solution.

In June 2017, the county council launched a £1m ‘Community Match Funding Scheme’ (CMFS) to assist residents and communities not covered by the phase two rollout.

This scheme allows individual communities in the final 2.6% effectively to buy into HCC’s rollout programme with Openreach and to access an upgrade for their premises. The county council will provide 50% funding towards the cost of an Openreach solution, with a ceiling of £1,650 per property.

Despite the various measures in place, it is expected that there will be around 3,000 premises in the New Forest area that are not connected to superfast speeds at the end of the current rollout.

The meeting heard from Cllr Richard Taylor, on behalf of Minstead Parish Council, who said out of around 330 homes, only 50 had internet coverage. The parish council had last written to Openreach in February, he said, and was yet to receive a reply. “It’s immensely frustrating,” he said.

Also upset at the lack of provision in the Waterside was Cllr Alexis McEvoy, who represents the area as a district councillor. She said that of 7,000 homes, only 500 received the superfast level. She said: “My division is not in a particularly rural area. We all experience way, way below the expected level.”

The council’s cabinet member for local economic development, property and innovation, Cllr Michael Harris, told the meeting: “I’m not happy with 95% coverage, or 96% or 97%. It should be 100%. I cannot understand that in this modern world, not all homes have internet access.”

Referring to the issue with the FC over the minor change of the location of signal boxes, he said: “It’s a perfect example of how agencies are not cooperating to solve the problem. At a local level, I think we should all get together and set a form of ground rules. This is getting ridiculous.”

Chairman of the panel, Cllr Mark Steele, asked members to agree a series of recommendations, which included continuing to work with partners to implement the broadband rollout and making residents and businesses aware of existing grants and schemes to further coverage.

He added: “Broadband is becoming very divisive but if everyone tries working collaboratively, let’s try and make something happen.”

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