The Superfast Essex programme uses a five step process to maximise the use of public funding, to increase the level of superfast fibre broadband (capable of delivering download speeds of 30Mbps and above) available to residents and businesses in the county.
1. Open Market Review (OMR)
Essex County Council (ECC) requests all known broadband network operators, including BT and Virgin Media as well as wireless and other broadband technology operators, to submit a list of postcodes that their network covers in Essex. Providers need to evidence that their network meets the EU guidelines for Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband, which is kind of the EU code for superfast broadband. Suppliers are asked to provide the number of premises for each post code:
Under EU State Aid regulations, any areas where there is no existing NGA coverage and none planned within the next three years can be declared as areas of Market Failure, and are therefore eligible for public subsidy. Put in other words, these Market Failure areas are the post codes where Superfast Essex is legally allowed to invest. In State Aid jargon, these post codes are also known as “NGA White” post codes.
2. The Speed Coverage Template and flagging priority areas
Using information from the OMR, ECC creates a single list of all Essex postcodes which clearly identifies the NGA White post codes. This list is known as the Speed and Coverage Template (SCT).
Taking account of the results from the Make the Connection demand survey, the Superfast Essex team then attaches a priority flag to all NGA White post codes on the SCT where high demand for superfast broadband has been registered.
Working in collaboration with the economic development teams at ECC and within the District, Borough and Unitary Councils in Essex, as well as key business associations, the Superfast Essex team also identifies any postcodes that should be prioritised for economic development reasons. These are also marked with a priority flag.
The marked-up SCT is then passed to the supplier as part of the procurement process, along with an indication of how much public funding is available to spend for the rollout programme being procured.
3. Supplier Modelling
Using the Speed and Coverage Template (SCT) provided by ECC, the supplier then creates a model of the network to be built, taking account of all factors that can create cost. These include the following key aspects:
The supplier will also consider what superfast broadband technology is best suited to serve the premises specified in the SCT. In Essex, Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) technology remains largely the most cost-effective technology within the BT rollout, but it can be complemented with some Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) solutions. Under the Rural Challenge Project, our supplier Gigaclear is deploying exclusively FTTP, but a large-scale implementation of FTTP is currently the more expensive option.
The output from this supplier modelling process (BT call this the Chief Engineers’ Model) is then reviewed by the supplier’s network planning team against the available funding and the priority areas specified within the SCT. At this point a balance will be struck between reaching as many properties as possible with the available funding and including as many of the priority areas as possible.
Once completed, the proposed network deployment plan is then passed back to ECC as part of the supplier response under the procurement process.
4. Review of Proposed Deployment Plan
Upon receipt of the proposed deployment plan, the Superfast Essex team reviews the proposal and checks against the requirement as specified in the procurement. The team will check what percentage of the specified priority areas has been included. They will also ensure that the correct balance has been struck between reaching these areas and achieving the highest overall increase in the number of premises across the county enabled to reach superfast speeds. Where appropriate, the team will challenge any anomalies and amendments are made before the contract is agreed and signed.
The rollout plan and supporting funding model are also reviewed by the Superfast Essex finance team as well as by BDUK. As a co-investor with a national overview, BDUK provides a useful analysis of all supplier bids received and a comparison to the average deployment cost and premises reached between Essex and other BDUK programmes. Any inconsistencies or areas of concern are clarified with the supplier before the contract is signed.
5. Operational Plan, Contract Monitoring, Adjustment and Audit
Once a delivery contract is signed with the supplier, a period of mobilisation follows. During this time, the contractual agreement to deliver coverage to postcode areas is translated into an Operational Plan, which identifies the fibre cabinets to be built (for FTTC) and the specific premises to be connected (for FTTP), and also sets out the deployment timetable. The Essex team works closely with the supplier to ensure that the Operational Plan reflects any identified priority areas wherever possible, without compromising the efficiency of the planned deployment. Once agreed, this Operational Plan forms the basis of the rollout.
Both parties recognise that in order to deliver the network in the most cost-effective manner, any deviations from the original network deployment plan need to be kept to a minimum. Therefore, while the Operational Plan is subject to constant review, any significant changes are only agreed where they are required due to practical or engineering reasons. For instance, if unforeseen circumstances push the cost of upgrading a cabinet above the contractually agreed ‘cost cap’ is significantly higher than expected (for instance due to the cost of arranging power supply, to unblock underground ducts or to access private land), then the cabinet in question may be removed from the plan and replaced with a suitable alternative.
Throughout the contract duration both ECC and BDUK monitor the supplier’s delivery against the Contract, and the project finances are monitored compared to the project financial model within the Contract. The contract monitoring activity is carried out by the Superfast Essex team and is regularly reviewed by both an internal Audit team within ECC and BDUK’s audit team.