Broadband skills contract delay frustrates region's business leaders
Business leaders are concerned about delays caused by the retendering of a contract aimed at getting firms up to speed with the potential of superfast broadband in Devon and Somerset.
They expressed their frustration at the delays with the Get up to Speed! contract, which aims to give businesses and community organisations the skills to get the most from the £94 million Connecting Devon and Somerset programme.
The scheme, which is being run by the two county councils, BT and the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme, has a target of installing superfast broadband in 90% of premises by the end of 2016.
While the infrastructure upgrades are a key part of the programme, the idea is that businesses and community organisations are also given the right knowledge and skills to take full advantage of the technology.
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It was announced in December that Honiton-based social enterprise Cosmic and Cambridge-based YTKO would be delivering this. But a spokeswoman for the Connecting Devon and Somerset programme said that it would now be retendered, with Cosmic currently still working on some aspects of the contract and YTKO no longer involved.
Pete Ashton, Bideford-based national policy vice chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said he had not been impressed with progress on the contract to date. “These companies did some initial meetings and many of our members went to them and said that, rather than being inspirational, they thought they were lacklustre, asking questions rather than giving the answers,” he said.
“Training is paramount. It’s no good having a tool if you don’t know how to use it. You have to have the broadband speed and the training to know how to use it.”
Mr Ashton said that he believed that the broadband rollout itself would deliver excellent coverage for the Westcountry’s rural communities. And he welcomed BT’s appointment as the main contractor as they allowed all broadband suppliers to access the network, maximising consumer choice.
But he said he would prefer to see business support delivered by existing organisations with strong local knowledge such as North Devon+ or the Torbay Development Agency.
Ian Bailey, chairman of the Okehampton Chamber of Commerce, said: “The Government promised that it would speed up superfast broadband for rural areas so any delays would be disappointing because it’s vital that rural areas have connectivity.”
“It’s something I know that our members who are accommodation providers are looking forward to because it’s something that will make a big different to their business.”
In June, Connecting Devon and Somerset announced the first seven communities that would be upgraded as part of the programme – Moretonhampstead, Holsworthy, Sticklepath, Bradford on Tone, Bishops Lydeard, Creech St Michael and Monkton Heathfield. Construction work has already started at Sticklepath and Bradford on Tone, three months early, with all seven areas set to go live by the end of the year.
A spokeswoman for Connecting Devon and Somerset said: “Signing the official CDS broadband delivery contract with BT has given us confirmation of the overall timeframe of the CDS programme. As a result, the funding and timescales for our business and community support programme (Get up to Speed!) have had to be revised so as to ensure we have resources available up to the completion of programme rollout at the end of 2016.
“The resulting change in budget, resources and timeframe, has, in line with current procurement legislation, triggered a requirement that we reprocure the provision of our entire demand stimulation programme. We hope to have completed the re-procurement exercise by the end of the year.”
Both Cosmic and YTKO declined to comment.
There have previously been “significant issues” between BT and Connecting Devon and Somerset around the delivery contract itself, which resulted in a short delay to the signing of the document at the start of this year.