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Rural anti-BT backlash may halt expansion of pioneering West Country broadband project

The UK’s first state-funded broadband project may not be extended after councillors branded BT’s speed promise for rural users ‘a nightmare.’

The £35.6m Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire scheme was the first of the government’s Broadband Delivery for the UK projects to ink a deal with BT, and councillors were poised to extend the deal.

But a promised minimum speed of 2Mbps for rural users has lead to a voter backlash, while some communities have beaten BT by launching their own superfast internet service providers.

Cotswold Wireless can serve any area with a tall structure to mount its tramsmitters
Cotswold Wireless can serve any area with a tall structure to mount its tramsmitters

Wiltshire County Council’s deputy leader John Thomson, who championed the original deal in 2012, told the Western Daily Press the council is now looking at other technologies and providers.

“It has been a nightmare, mainly because of people wanting to get superfast broadband now, and wanting it to be faster than it will be.

“To be honest, I’m not over-happy with the deal, but at the time it was the only one in town. There have been success stories, and some towns and villages are very happy with the result – but others not so much.

“It may well be there are other opportunities and other technologies that we can go for, that will provide a better service and give more value for money.”

Councillor Thomson said his main concern for communities opting out of the BDUK project would be that they are relying on a single internet provider which could collapse or raise prices dramatically.

The first part of the councils’ deal with BT will see 91 per cent of the region connected to FTTC (fibre-to-the-cabinet) technology which will provide at least 2Mbps, with much faster speeds in built-up areas.

A second part would spend more funds on extending the 2Mbps minimum to 100 per cent of premises, and the council has applied for more BDUK national and European cash to match its own funds.

In the Dun Valley, near Salisbury, five villages have formed cooperative to bring in private provider Gigaclear to build a pure fibre broadband network far faster than BT’s, although the campaign was frustrated when Wiltshire Council refused to leave them out of the BDUK roadmap.

A spokesman said: “We are not prepared to gamble on being left in the ‘final 9 per cent’ with slow broadband, nor prepared to wait for anything up to three years before any definite improvement, when we have the opportunity with Gigaclear to have a technically superior ‘pure fibre’ service, offering higher performance at a competitive price.”

Hankerton in Wiltshire is one of several villages signed up to Cotswold Wireless, which uses a church spire to transmit 20Mbps broadband to wireless receivers on TV aerials, and has signed up 20 per cent of villagers.

Local organiser Geoff Preston said: “The whole thing is a bit of a scam. All BT are doing is connecting up the green box in the street to superfast broadband, but if you live more than a couple of hundred yards away, or have old wires to your house, your speeds won’t improve that much.”

Cotswold Wireless is increasing its coverage area and is testing an upgrade to 4G connections which can provide 40Mbps connections with unlimited data.

BT Openreach said the majority of customers who switch to its version of fibre broadband will see a ‘major increase’ in speeds, and that it provides a choice of ISPs to ensure competitive pricing.


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