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Friday, 15 July 2011

Is Cumbria JFDI Part 2?

I feel I can better expand on the Broadband Industry Day last week after catching up with some thoughts of those who were there too this week.

This blog post can be read at

There appears to be a mix of emotions surrounding not just that day and who was (and wasn't) present, but also the procurement process and progress in general.

There is one question which I feel needs to be asked over and over again until we get a reasonable answer: Why has Cumbria County Council chosen the short list for suppliers when the Council does not even seem remotely clear about what it requires and is therefore procuring?

The second question which follows that is: why are IT services included in the spend of a £16.8M pot destined to solve the rural broadband issue, not CCC's infrastructure problem?

It seems the second list is now down to four (CTC have dropped out because they were actually more interested in the IT services list, or so we hear) - BT, Cable & Wireless, Commendium and Fujitsu.

This is an eclectic mix to say the least. C&W, Fujitsu and Commendium all appear to be working on a telehealth experiment in Shap together. (About which it appears Shap know little to nothing). One could wonder if there are actually only two players left in that list? In which case, as CCC are still unclear precisely what is to be delivered, how on earth are Cumbrians to believe that these may be the best suppliers for the still-to-be-defined task? Particularly as there are other suppliers who fail to meet procurement criteria in multiple counties now who could deliver in a more agile and probably cost-effective manner, who seem far more interested in working with the communities.

My slightly more positive feel about BDUK and CCC on leaving in the pouring rain on Friday does not entirely appear to be reflected by others present. And having heard their concerns, I have to admit to beginning to feel as though we are on a roller coaster which may find itself running out of track before ere long. However, there is agreement that there are definitely some hearts in the right places, and support for community broadband. But there seems to be a growing feeling that process and bureaucracy may prove the undoing of the mere mortals/human beans that should be being served by the process rather than vice versa.

The suppliers seemed to have been a variety of - 'scared stiff', 'gobstruck' at the professionalism of the community presentations, as well as eager (or not, in some cases) to work with communities, as well as keen to work with other supplier partners (or not).

There is a concern I think that there will be a power struggle to ensure that the second list do actually deliver what Cumbrian communities need, now and in the future, and do not just pay lip service to what CCC and communities are saying purely to win the bid. This is extremely likely if CCC do not clearly define exactly what needs to be delivered and understand at least approximately what that may/should cost.

PhilT put this rather succinctly the other day when commenting about technology neutral bids when he said that what we should be doing is defining the gigabit connection and then allowing the suppliers to indicate precisely how they would deliver this. Rather than giving the suppliers enough rope to hang the entire county with which is what I think many are concerned that CCC may be doing, inadvertently or otherwise.

I did feel frustrated on Friday that there still seem to be too many on very steep learning curves, very late in the day, and that there simply is not enough collaboration and sharing of knowledge going on. To assume that all the knowledge is within the suppliers' camps is a disproven theory now, and actually it could be argued that some of the information that the communities now hold is far more commercially sensitive than that of some of the suppliers. Particularly those suppliers who are only in this for the money.

I think that as we are a Big Society area and were specifically given instructions by Nat Wei in Kirkby Stephen to kick down the barriers which prevent delivery of the right solutions for this fair land called Eden, that some of those barriers may be about to receive a serious kicking to remove them once and for all. And to be honest, not a moment too soon after the Project Access debacle.

It would also seem that some of the suppliers are treating this simply as a commercial process, which is fine, but in times of tight budgets, cuts etc, one would have hoped (in my little idealistic world) that perhaps the Council would work doubly hard to ensure that the money goes as far as possible. One community has reported that a supplier took away their shopping list to 'shave a few pounds off it' and came back with something that was almost double the original costings.

Which is standard public funding behaviour (think of a number, add a zero, times by pi) but in this day and age, and for community broadband for a county such as Cumbria which has such a high proportion of experienced fibre and broadband folk - that's not going to fly, is it, eh? Or one would hope that the Council would see through such behaviour and stamp on it.

I am beginning to wonder whether I am correct in believing that a growing number of folk are disenchanted with the entire procurement process and are actually planning to JFDI without the backing of the Council. Yes, it could prove inordinately difficult, but that depends on whether the rest of Cumbria understands what is going on and backs these communities. After all, it is not too difficult to vote out those who have been elected in the future if the actions of a few determined folk prove over time that the Council went about things the wrong way.

In reality, it only needs one reasonably sized community to work together with smaller suppliers, who could not even make those short lists, to JFDI, and a spotlight could be turned onto the winners of the bid to ensure they deliver above and beyond what 'hicks in the sticks' can. However, this would mean building a world-class network and not an interim solution; but it seems that there are at least two of the pilots that are already at the required level of knowledge and planning to carry that through. I suspect there are more who are not as vocal or as public who could also be a 'threat' to the Council's procurement over the coming 2-5 years.

And this, to me, is where things may well get interesting. If the communities act together to share information, skills, knowledge, best practice, we could see some best networks built on and in Cumbrian soil that surpass anything that the winner might choose to deploy given a commercial choice. And all of us will be far more interested reading a front page of the Herald that shows people we know, in places we know, digging where they live, than passing yet another BT van at the side of the road.

£16.8M is a drop in the ocean to some of the companies on that short list, but it could still turn dirty. It's not about that funding; it's about landgrab and having customers who may stick with the supplier for 20 or more years into the future. Trouble is, oh supplier friends of ours, this is a very tight-knit community and our jungle drums are far faster than any broadband you may care to install! Dirty tricks will be exposed in less time than you can dip a sheep, and will be shared via our traditional communications routes. And Cumbrians are vocal!

At a time when Cumbrians are struggling to make ends meet, wastage of what is viewed as OUR MONEY, paid from our TV licences, is likely to be taken badly. And if CCC act properly and there are penalty clauses for failure to deliver, this could become a costly exercise. But, let's not jump that dry stone wall before we get to it, eh?

Rory said he wanted to see spades in the ground before the end of this year. Or that's what I heard, but someone else thinks he said before the end of August. That being the case, we have come up with a pilot that could potentially do just that. And to me, that is one of the joys of rural living. Throw an idea into the communal pot, toss it around a little with your neighbours who are equally as passionate about Eden, work out the kinks and details, and then JFDI before moving on to the next project our communities need that no-one else can work out how to fund or action!

Watch this space....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We have very similar feelings down in sunny Surrey. I believe the fundamental problem is that the nation should be designing a future-proofed FTTP solution but it is quite impossible for either of the two large incumbents to do so. Both are paralysed with sticking plaster solutions. Government & BDUK seem to be promoting large local solutions driven by County Councils who clearly do not have the resources or experience to specify and procure such solutions.

The emperor REALLY does need a new set of clothes !