Tories break broadband promise

The former Cheltenham MP who first raised the issue of poor broadband service in parts of Cheltenham has accused the new Tory government of breaking its promises and his Tory successor of dropping the ball.

Former Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood called a special debate in Parliament in November 2014, just months before the May 2015 general election, once it became clear that many hundreds of houses across Cheltenham with historically poor broadband speeds were being left out of both commercial upgrade opportunities by BT and Virgin AND the government subsidised programme administered in Gloucestershire by the County Council under the name ‘Fastershire’.

‘The Tory minister spent most of that debate on his mobile phone but he did promise to ‘knock heads together’ and get the problem sorted. And the coalition government’s pledge was that by 2016 everyone in the country would have a decent basic connection speed of at least 2 megabits per second’ said Martin. ‘Both those promises have been broken: the gaps in Cheltenham haven’t been filled despite the fact that just before the election I supplied both commercial suppliers and the County Council with the addresses of more than 600 affected homes so they had no excuse that one side wasn’t telling the other who had been left out. Parts of Cheltenham are still plagued with very low connection speeds and still have no prospect of an upgrade, making it nearly impossible to do business, online homework, online banking and shopping and many other transactions many of us now take for granted.’

‘The Tory County Council’s Fastershire programme hasn’t solved the problem and the Tory government has dropped the coalition’s 2 megabit pledge, pretending the only places affected are in the Outer Hebrides or other far flung rural areas where people ‘don’t want to be connected.’

‘My team and I were hot on the heels of ministers, commercial suppliers and the County Council right up to the election. Since then my Tory successor seems to have completely dropped the ball. He was very quick to jump on the bandwagon during the election campaign but seems to have fallen right off it afterwards.’

NOTES

  • The worst affected areas combining both poor connection speeds and inability to upgrade are in Pittville, Up Hatherley and Benhall wards. Cheltenham councillors in some of these these areas include Cllr Dennis Parsons 07540 398914, Cllr Roger Whyborn 07960 240090 and Cllr Nigel Britter 07752 109307.

Technical note: the historically slow broadband speeds in Cheltenham are due to the unusual centralised telephone exchange which leaves outlying areas with a really poor broadband service, often under 2Mbps. Commercial suppliers, principally BT and Virgin have delivered ‘superfast’ broadband upgrade availability across much of the town where they believe this is commercially viable – mainly via large BT cabinets serving whole neighbourhoods. But newer estates like the former Midwinters site off Tommy Taylor’s Lane in Pittville ward, Manor Farm in Up Harherley ward and Grace Gardens in Benhall typically have cabinets serving smaller populations and failed the commercial suppliers’ viability test. The County Council has been subsidised by the government to provide for less viable areas but has exclusively targeted more rural areas (see  http://www.fastershire.com/where-when ), having broadly categorised entire Cheltenham postcodes as ‘commercially viable’ and so ineligible for subsidy under EU competition rules – but failing to find out from commercial suppliers which exact addresses, for instance in newer estates, were not actually commercially viable.  This subsidised programme – which they have called ‘Fastershire’ – has completed much of its work and is due to end by 2018.

Better broadband for Cheltenham

Cheltenham has undergone a broadband revolution in the last few years.  By 2015 at least 88% of the town was able to upgrade to superfast fibre-optic broadband with speeds of 35 Megabits per second (Mbps) or faster.  But it had also become clear by then that thousands of homes in Cheltenham were going to be left out of this revolution. Gaps were being left between the commercial operators like BT and Virgin and the government-subsidised ‘Fastershire’ programme being run by the county council. 

Martin testing broadband speeds.

This is particularly serious as Cheltenham had historically poor broadband speeds, some as slow as 0.5 Mbps.   Martin lobbied ministers, operators and the county council to get broadband moving for everyone.

The origins of the problem in Cheltenham date back to the 1920s when Cheltenham got a central telephone exchange.  As  the town grew, the distance from that exchange initially just meant slightly worse voice call quality. Today, internet broadband speeds drop off sharply the further you are from the exchange.  In outlying areas such as Up Hatherley and Springbank speeds can be as low as 0.5 Megabits per second (Mbps).

In today’s world, that is unacceptable which is why Martin was one of those MPs who campaigned successfully for the government to invest in superfast broadband.  A basic internet service is no longer a luxury.  We use it for:

  • Working from home
  • Access to school homework
  • Online banking
  • Applications to university
  • Job applications and benefit claims
  • Responses to Government and other public  consultations

The coalition government put more than £100 million for England into a subsidised programme to reach those areas that were not commercially viable. But by 2015 BT had only reached 88%, new estates and developments across Cheltenham were being left out and the the county council’s ‘Fastershire’ programme wasn’t filling the gaps.

The coalition government’s targets were for 90% availability of superfast broadband, with speeds as high as 25, 30 or more megabits per second, and for everyone to have the basic 2 Mbps broadband service – although the new Conservative government has quietly dropped some of these targets.  Certainly that last target was missed in Cheltenham under the Conservatives, and if they are not met in an urban area such as Cheltenham, they are unlikely to be met nationwide.

When he was the MP, Martin lobbied BT, Virgin, ‘Fastershire’ and government ministers, up to an including the Prime Minister on this issueYou can read Martin’s parliamentary speech on the issue here and watch it here.