Surf's up in Cornwall thanks to EU funding - but other UK notspots still wait to catch a fibre break...
BT has announced it is to roll out superfast fibre broadband in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly with the help of European funding, making broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps "widely available" in the region by 2014.
The telecoms provider describes the rollout - which will cost £132m and is to begin immediately, with the first customers connected by the end of March next year - as the largest such rural fibre project in the world, benefiting thousands of local businesses, creating 4,000 jobs and helping safeguard another 2,000.
"This is a very significant project," said Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT, in a statement. "It will make the county one of the best connected areas in the world and provide a major boost to its prosperity."
BT is not footing the bill for the rollout on its own. The European Regional Development Fund's (ERDF) Convergence programme is investing £53.5m - just over 40 per cent of the money - with BT providing the remaining £78.5m. The UK government is not contributing any funding.
BT has previously pledged to spend £2.5bn on rolling out superfast broadband to two-thirds of the UK by 2015. And while the £78.5m is additional money to BT's earlier spending announcement, the Cornwall footprint might contribute to BT's 66 per cent coverage pledge, according to Liv Garfield, director, strategy, policy and portfolio, BT Group.
"The 'final third' of the UK is undoubtedly challenging to reach with fibre but this project shows it is possible," added Livingston. "Our door remains open to others who are keen to work with us to bring fibre broadband to their areas."
Sally Davis, CEO of BT Wholesale, said the telecoms provider would aim to use the project as a "blueprint" for other rural areas of the UK - to see how the rollout could be replicated elsewhere. Cornwall and Wales, however, are the only two UK regions that can qualify for ERDF funding.
"We really, really want to go further [than two-thirds]," said Davis. "But to do that we do need additional sources of funding - just as we did for our first-generation programmes."
Asked where other rural regions should go to seek funds for superfast broadband, she said: "I think they need to look to other sources of funding, not necessarily EU."
The UK's coalition government has said it wants the UK to have the "best" broadband network in Europe by 2015 but has called for the private sector to lead the charge, rather than creating a dedicated public funding mechanism for next-generation broadband - as the Labour government had planned.
The government has said it will run trials of fibre broadband in three as yet unnamed rural areas - to test the market and gather data on how "we can best target government intervention and make next-generation broadband viable in even the most challenging areas", with BBC digital switchover money earmarked as a possible pot of funding to help push superfast broadband to the UK's 'final third'. Meanwhile it has encourage the private sector to work with local councils, communities and other organisations to find ways to expand the UK's superfast broadband footprint.
Davis continued: "The government is considering how they will provide funds for the future for these types of project so that's very much work in progress for the government."
"There are other funds available in different ways... that different areas can look at but I think the biggest area will be what this government chooses to do," she added.
Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly can expect fibre to be the dominant access technology for the superfast rollout. BT said its aim is...
...to lay fibre to between 80 and 90 per cent of local businesses and homes - with full fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) - with speeds of up to 100Mbps - expected to make up half of these connections, and the other half being fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) - which offers up to 40Mbps.
The exact proportion of FTTH to FTTC will be subject to detailed surveys of the county. "We'll look at innovative solutions - such as farmers digging trenches to be able to help with [the fibre laying] process," added Garfield. "That's why we can't say who gets what today."
The 10 to 20 per cent of homes and businesses in the region that miss out on fibre will still see a broadband hike, according to BT, as it also plans to deploy a range of alternative access technologies to fibre notspots.
"We will make sure that everybody in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly benefits from this programme by using a variety of other technologies - satellite, wireless and other infill technologies [such as advanced copper] - to improve the speed for everybody," noted Davis.
The new superfast network will also be open to other ISPs to sell services. "The council didn't want just to have a [BT] monopoly here," she added. "So one of the essential things that we're bringing is that diversity of service providers who are then able to address the market as soon as that network is in place."
Tony Stuart, a non-executive director of Cornwall Development Company (CDC) - the economic development arm of Cornwall Council which will be responsible for managing the next-gen broadband project - said the arrival of superfast broadband will bring huge economic benefits to local residents.
"Over the next three years the superfast broadband project will deliver huge improvements - not just in broadband speed but also in terms of the reliability right across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and it's going to make us… one of the best connected rural areas in the entire world," he said. "It's going to be essentially a lifetime investment for Cornwall and it's going to benefit the economy for decades to come."
"Looking at it in terms of investment per capita it works out at around £100 per person so it's going to represent excellent value," he added. "There's going to be a quantum leap in connectivity available across the whole of Cornwall. 100 per cent is going to be connected one way or another."
Early fibre deployments will be targeted at areas in greatest need of economic regeneration, according to Stuart, who said CDC estimates around 10,000 local businesses will be able to benefit from superfast broadband. "It's going to improve business competitiveness right across the board," he added.
The rollout will also help to create "high value knowledge-based job opportunities", said Stuart, and bring low carbon benefits, by reducing commuting and business travel, and enabling the delivery of health, education and other services in more efficient ways.
"Having superfast broadband means being able to bring all the benefits of working and living in a big city right to the heart of the countryside," he added.
The fibre rollout could also lead to an improvement in mobile networks in the region, according to BT's Davis.
"One of the things that we'll be enabling is the rollout of next-generation wireless capability by the mobile operators," noted Davis. "One of the things that we do is provide many of the circuits through to the cell sites... So this [superfast broadband] programme will enable some of that."
Asked whether BT has aspirations to acquire some new spectrum - with a view to rolling out its own next-generation wireless network, such as LTE or WiMax, Davis said this is not on the BT's radar at this time.
"We don't currently envisage that as part of the solution," she said, adding: "Certainly we've been working with partners on the satellite side, which we see as the primary infill."