Residents of Hatherden, Wildhern, Tangley and Charlton Down filled Wildhern Village Hall at 10 am on Saturday morning, to protest at the absence of reliable broadband in the area, because BT have refused to enable their telephone exchange.
The meeting was chaired by Parish Council Chairman David Eldred, and addressed by Christopher Pitt - one of the residents who has spearheaded the campaign to bring fast and reliable telecommunications to the villages; by Ian Wilcox, from Hampshire County Council; and by the local MP, Sir George Young.
Sir George gave the background to the problem, explaining that BT had refused to upgrade three telephone exchanges in Hampshire, one of which was in North West Hampshire. "This is the only exchange in my constituency which BT have not enabled, and from which broadband is not available. I am concerned that those who live round here are at a disadvantage with everyone else and, when we are being encouraged not to travel and to work from home, the absence of reliable, economic and fast telecommunications is a serious deterrent."
Sir George said that, in debates on broadband in the House that he had inititiated in the last Parliament, he had said that access to broadband should be treated as a public service, such as access to water, to electricity and like a daily delivery of mail. However, the Government had declined to make broadband a Public Service Obligation, saying that they had created a market and a number of suppliers and it was not going to put a specific obligation on one competitor, such as BT. Sir George had also asked BT to review their decision not to enable the exchange, but they had recently declined.
In the meantime, Hampshire County Council had invited tenders to bring broadband to the village. Although BT had bid, their bid had been higher than that of Village Internet Broadband (VIB) run by Steve Spillane. With a contribution of some £15,000 from HCC, VIB had brought broadband to the area using alternative wireless technology.
Only a handful of residents actually have broadband via VIB; it is still on trial 2 years after the contract was drawn up, and everyone else is waiting to be connected.
However, a large number of constituents had been in touch with Sir George, complaining that the technology was slow and unreliable. His view was that BT should enable the exchange, and provide a service in competition to VIB - giving people a choice. He had contacted HCC and arranged a meeting in the village in a fortnight's time with John Rees-Evans, Head of Economic Development at HCC and a number of residents.
Ian Wilcox explained that there was a contract with VIB and his view was that they should be held to that contract. Hampshire County Council had to be prudent with public funds, and were doing their best to bring broadband to areas where there had been "market failure". He said there was no reason why BT could not enable the exchange if they wanted to, and nothing in the contract with VIB precluded that.
During a lively exchange of views, those present were convinced that the VIB technology would never be a satisfactory solution; and that, while enabling the exchange would not solve the problem for everyone as a number of houses would be out of reach, it would solve the problem for the bulk of those present.
The service could not cope adequately with large batches of information, and was basically unreliable. Residents objected to only having one monopoly supplier at an uncompetitive cost. In the context of the operations of BT, the £60k necessary to enable the exchange was something BT could take in its stride.
Those present appreciated the contribution of Mr Willcox, who had given up a Saturday morning to face criticism from local residents (much of which might have been directed elsewhere!)
At the end of the meeting, David Eldred said the Parish Council - which had not been properly consulted - would take it upon itself to drive the matter forward.
The next Parish Council meeting is on 19th June where a decision will be made to set up a working party under the remit of the PC and the members of that committee chosen. Hampshire CC and BT will then be able to deal directly with a representative group of all the parish rather than individuals working independently.
I am grateful to Christopher Pitt for his record of the meeting below, which is hopefully complementary and certainly more accurate.
Hatherden & Wildhern Residents Broadband meeting – 10th June 2006
Over 100 residents attended the meeting organised by Tangley Parish Council, chaired by David Eldred, attended by Sir George Young Bt MP and Ian Wilcox a representative of Hampshire County Council. Some further 20 residents could not attend but had put their views in writing or by phone.
Christopher Pitt was asked to summarise the views of residents he had spoken to or who had contacted him. This was followed by a lively discussion with significant contributions from residents who had particular expertise and technical knowledge of internet and computer technology. Many residents running small businesses were particularly disadvantaged by the continued delay in implementing broadband and some residents will not be able to receive wireless broadband at all because of technical limitations.
Sir George Young said that, as our MP, he was committed to ensuring we had reliable, economic and fast broadband and pointed out that we were now the only village in Hampshire without after HCC had decided to fund a BT solution for two other villages.
There was a unanimous consensus that –
The contract arranged by HCC for Village Internet & Broadband to provide wireless broadband was unacceptable because of inherent technical limitations that will never provide the speeds or reliability required, particularly by small businesses. The current trial is not regarded as successful and fails to meet minimum operating standards as compared to BT provided broadband.
The decision by HCC to award a contract to a sole supplier offering uncompetitive terms for a solution which is apparently unsuited to our geography and which is not considered to have the capacity to meet demand without first establishing our requirements by prior consultation, proper due diligence of the contractor and validation of untested technology was seen as regrettable.
Residents therefore advised HCC that pursuing the current contractor to improve his wireless service was not the correct route. HCC confirmed that there was no legal impediment to bringing another broadband supplier alongside VIB but it was a matter of cost. BT had indicated that enabling the exchange would cost between £60K -£80K but as work is required to connect Hatherden Primary School to meet Government targets, that cost may be revisited. It was felt that a combination of commercial pragmatism by BT and HCC funding should resolve financial issues –particularly as we are now the last village in Hampshire not enabled by BT.
The meeting concluded the following action be taken –
Sir George has arranged a meeting with HCC on the 23rd June 2006 in Wildhern. The Parish Council will ask individual residents with technical and commercial knowledge to join an Action Group to be represented at that meeting.
The objective of the meeting will be to establish the true cost of enabling the exchange to a standard that meets residents and business requirements and to ensure that HCC allocate the necessary funding.