Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

Digital Connectivity Programme - Creating a digital manager role within a district council

The Local Government Association’s Digital Connectivity Programme awarded funding to South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council to create a new post for a ‘Community Digital Connectivity Manager’ to work with communities to assist with digital connectivity issues.


Executive summary

The Local Government Association’s (LGA) Digital Connectivity Programme awarded funding to South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council to create a new post for a ‘Community Digital Connectivity Manager’ to work with communities to assist with digital connectivity issues. The following report details what the district council has achieved since the post was created in June 2021. The report also provides insights for other district councils wishing to create similar digital connectivity roles.

At present a district council has no statutory role in digital connectivity, but society’s increasing reliance on connectivity should be recognised in council corporate strategies and senior leadership across all tiers of local government.

Digital connectivity is fundamental to the success of economic development, housing and planning teams. And at district level, the key performance indicators selected to assess the impact of the role since appointment should measure local place-based impact on communities and their ability to take advantage of digital connectivity. Parameters so far have included, the number of communities (homes/businesses) supported, the monitoring website traffic for support pages and the expansion of engagement, resources, and networks with local community groups through communications and newsletters sent.

Interacting with local bodies and suppliers

There are 48 local bodies across England set up to deliver next generation of broadband infrastructure to areas where the commercial market has failed to invest. These local bodies largely have county council geographic remits and have to date managed central government funding for homes or business with below superfast (30 Megabits per second (Mbps) download) connection speeds. The local bodies hold detailed mapping of connection speeds, which are obtained from suppliers providing commercially sensitive details of where they serve or intend to. A non-disclosure agreement is needed for the local body to share this information with the district council. However, the local body should be encouraged to share as much information as possible publicly for increased transparency.  Building and maintaining the district’s relationship with the local body has been of fundamental importance to the success of the project.

Building a relationship with the broadband suppliers in a district is also integral to supporting communities.  The local body can provide a list of which suppliers to contact, but this may not include the smaller emerging companies.  Ensuring residents have access to the contact details of local suppliers on a webpage is critical. Councils should include an option for those not included to get in contact as soon as possible.  Depending on the rollout speed of infrastructure installation in an area, regular catch-up meetings with the local body and suppliers have proved very useful in understanding fibre rollout in our area and non-disclosure agreements may be needed for the suppliers to share information.

Interacting with residents and establishing broadband champions

Establishing digital connectivity webpages on the district website assembles information which is currently dispersed across many sites in one trusted place.  An online form was created to build a database of people looking for better broadband. A small social media campaign, supported by members, parish, and town councils, built engagement to grow a substantial database of 800 people looking to the council for answers to their poor digital connectivity. The large response this generated, demonstrated the importance of digital connectivity to members and senior leadership in the council, and it provided leverage to encourage suppliers to work collaboratively with the district.

The online form was also used to recruit a volunteer team of broadband champions to act as digital ambassadors for their local areas. The project has to date recruited 150 champions, with a champion representing 56 per cent of the parishes across both councils. Based on the champion to population ratio, if similar projects were set up across the UK, 4.3 million champions could be recruited.

This workstream followed learning from the Broadband Champion Toolkit produced by the local body for Essex, Superfast Essex, in collaboration with the LGA.

The champions were asked to build a database of demand for better broadband in their area by completing an Excel template to ensure residents and businesses were aware of all the options. The databases will be used to establish clusters of homes and businesses eligible for Gigabit Voucher funding or bespoke fixed wireless solutions so that they can be supported through a community led scheme. This will provide improved broadband for communities who are currently struggling with very poor connection speeds and who do not have other options. The champions were provided with a live and recorded webinar setting out their role and an information pack to support this.  We found that just under half the champions who had volunteered at this point attended a live webinar and the remainder viewed the recording.

The district council has been supporting community groups, through the champion programme, to understand what options are available to them to improve their broadband. Dedicated webpages have been set up, newsletter distribution lists and direct mail has been used to increase awareness of specific community led fibre projects. Based on comparison to other marketing done by the council, the newsletters have outperformed others in terms of the click rate to links they contain. 

Building relationships with neighbouring district councils is useful, particularly if they also sit beneath the same local body, to share learning and forming a united voice on pertinent issues. The LGA has been an invaluable resource in establishing partnerships with other councils.

Planning considerations

Digital connectivity needs to have a dedicated policy in the Local Plan to ensure it is considered in the development of all sites. Building regulations will not ensure a developer has researched what options are available. Digital connectivity was a high priority for neighbourhood plan groups and so a new digital connectivity focussed policy is now included in several emerging plans.  The rollout of a new fibre network will mean new infrastructure is required, such as new telegraph poles and cabinets.  While this infrastructure does not usually require planning permission, it can result in confusion and complaints to the council and members.  Working with the supplier to share infrastructure plans in advance has been mutually beneficial as the community are informed in advance and the supplier builds good will from potential future customers.

Connectivity mapping

In terms of understanding connection speeds across a district area, Ofcom hold detailed mapping and their Connected Nations report provides postcode level connections speeds. Think Broadband is another good source of information on connection speeds also down to the postcode level. In collaboration with the LGA, Westminster City Council have produced a toolkit which has a step-by-step guide to producing maps from the Ofcom data. The local body holds connection speeds at an address level, but as mentioned this data cannot easily be shared. The structure of the Openreach network (which includes exchanges and cabinets that serve specific properties) is not in the public domain and Openreach are unable to share this, but it can be identified on an individual basis.

It is very hard for members of the public to understand what options are available to them as information on digital connectivity is dispersed over a number of online locations and from multiple suppliers. Creating easily navigable and understandable webpages to signpost people through their options to increase transparency is essential. The champion programme will create a network of motivated individuals to assist their communities.  Building a strong mutually supportive relationship with the local body is also key to the success of this project on account of the information they hold.

Introduction

The Local Government Association’s Digital Connectivity programme awarded funding to South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council to create a new post for a ‘community digital connectivity manager’ to work with communities to assist with digital connectivity issues.   Broadband coverage in West Devon is one of the worst in the country. Out of 650 UK parliamentary constituencies, Torridge and West Devon is ranked 613th for broadband coverage, and Central Devon is ranked 611th.  Broadband coverage in South Hams is also falling behind the UK with Totnes ranked 608th for superfast coverage, and South West Devon is ranked 397th. 

South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council have combined council services but remain separate authority areas with independent elected members. There are approximately 25,000 homes or businesses within West Devon and 50,000 within South Hams.  Both councils are classified as rural, and in West Devon the entire population either lives in a rural area or market town and for South Hams, 80 per cent live in one of these two areas. This rurality is also evident in the population density which is 1.04 persons per hectare for South Hams according to an area profile report from 2014 for Devon County Council and 0.5 for West Devon, considerably below the English average of 4.1 hectares. The rural and dispersed population, together with challenging landscapes of wooded valleys and rolling hills, present many challenges for the rollout of fibre outside of the main towns.  In addition, almost half of West Devon falls within Dartmoor National Park and the entire coastline of South Hams is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, both of which present challenges for new infrastructure in such sensitive landscapes.

The digital connectivity manager has been in post since June 2021 so this report will be iterative and updated on the outcomes of initiatives as they are fully realised.

Raising the profile of the digital agenda within the council

Integration with core council strategies and working with senior leadership and elected members

The increasing importance of digital connectivity to the economy, communities, healthcare, and education is now widely acknowledged. However, council corporate strategies may not recognise this yet. A district level council currently has no statutory role in digital connectivity, but it can still have a positive influence in this area. Digital connectivity is overarching and so crosses with multiple service areas. Provided it is captured under one area in the council’s corporate strategy it is essential to establish the necessary senior leadership and political support it will need.

Building and sustaining wider member support in the project is also considered important to the success of creating a new digital connectivity role. If residents and businesses are concerned by poor digital connectivity, then it will be a shared concern for members. We have also found members can play a valuable role when it comes to publicity within an area, so it is important to ensure they are kept fully briefed and involved as the project progresses.

An elected member for West Devon commented:

It has been very useful to have someone to refer queries from communities to and with the technical knowledge to provide helpful responses. Links with Airband and Openreach are also very worthwhile. The role supports our aim to help rural communities obtain faster broadband, [it is] very important that the role continues.

Integration with council services

 

Establishing senior leadership support for digital connectivity has also been very important.  As with the corporate strategies, digital connectivity will likely sit across a number of different teams:

  • economic development – given the importance of fast and reliable access to internet for commerce
  • housing – in relation to ensuring new private and public housing schemes have good and affordable digital connectivity
  • planning – in relation to considering the justification for new applications for telecommunication equipment and integration of digital policies in Local Plan documents
  • communication – in relation to support in publicity for digital connectivity projects
  • information governance – in relation to complying with data protection regulations and compliance with any non-disclosure agreements due to data sensitivity
  • geographic information systems – to build spatial mapping layers to understand coverage and to be able to plot addresses on a map to identify geographic clusters.

Digital connectivity projects can give support to the first three teams an departments in the list above, and the bottom three are team and departments that will be needed to support the digital connectivity work that will be detailed later in this report.

Identification of funding

The availability of funding and grants for digital infrastructure is extremely limited and difficult to access at district council level.  Therefore, it is important that digital connectivity needs are understood across the community, and digital connectivity needs to be championed within all work streams of a council.

Government priorities within the Levelling Up agenda have highlighted the need for 5G investment across the UK by 2030. Projects being submitted for funding during Levelling Up fund tranche two and the Shared Prosperity Fund would benefit from the inclusion of digital connectivity improvements where needed. However, if the district does not have access to the data on connection speeds they are not in a position to bid for funding.

Our recommendation is that district councils should push for access to data and more funding with grants being made available to support more isolated coastal and rural communities. Thereby supporting those who are inevitably left behind as urban centres are recipients of full fibre infrastructure rollouts.

Designing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and measuring success

 

It was considered important to define and measure the success of the digital connectivity project by establishing clear and achievable KPIs. The KPIs in our project were defined as:

  • number of homes with improved connection speed
  • number of businesses with improved connection speed
  • higher broadband coverage ranking and higher superfast coverage percentage within UK parliamentary constituencies
  • number of jobs safeguarded
  • number of new jobs created.

Establishing the number of homes and businesses with improved connection should be relatively easy to monitor on a project by project basis by tracking those that are supported.  Similarly, monitoring a higher broadband ranking can be tracked and completed periodically by national publications. It is worth noting that this data should be used with caution due to the level of influence exerted by district councils at the start of this process.

At this stage in the project, we are considering ways in which we can capture the ad hoc assistance given to members of the public who make contact with the council.  In addition, we have been evaluating traffic to the digital connectivity webpages to understand which pages are proving the most useful and responses (clicks) to newsletters shared.

To date the majority of web traffic comes from internal pages and the next largest from other websites. The two most viewed digital pages are the home page and broadband champion page.

In general, the amount of unique web views is significantly below other council web pages which indicates further communication is needed to grow awareness of this project. The graph below illustrates there was a good response to the initial publicity, but then quite a fall in web traffic although the numbers remain steady across both councils.

Graph of number of views of digital connectivity homepage for South Hams and West Devon over six-month period. Views in October 2021, the first month, were 342 for South Hams and 180 for West Devon. In November 2021, 59 for South Hams and 58 for West Devon. In December 2021, 87 for South Hams and 38 for West Devon. In January, 72 for South Hams, and 108 for West Devon. In February, 81 for South Hams and 70 for West Devon. In March 2022, 91 for South Hams and 57 for West Devon.

In response to the newsletters that we have sent by email via the GovDelivery platform, on average half of these emails are opened and have resulted in between 23 and 39 per cent click rate to links contained within the newsletters. The open rate is broadly in line with other council newsletters, but the click rate has outperformed that of other newsletters sent in the same period which are generally below 10 per cent. This indicates that the newsletters are a useful tool in directing people to specific webpages and information. We are also looking into ways in which we can assess the success of the broadband champion programme, in relation to the number of people engaged through this offer. To date we have or continue to support 27 community groups which represents just under 1000 homes and businesses.

Working with upper tier councils

There are 48 local bodies that were set up across England which generally have county council level geographic remits. These local bodies were set up to deliver next generation broadband infrastructure to areas where the commercial market has failed to invest. The Government funding that these bodies have managed to date has been focussed on increasing superfast coverage within their geographic areas - superfast is defined as at least 30 Mbps of download speed (previously defined as above 24 Mbps). Local bodies run open market reviews which ask broadband suppliers to confirm where they are currently providing broadband, where they are intending to cover and therefore identify areas that are not in any future plans at present. The local body will use this market data to update their mapping to identify which addresses currently have connection speeds of under 30 Mbps. All addresses with less than 30 Mbps connection speed are eligible for the state aid funding that the local body manage.

The local body is most often expected to sign non-disclosure agreements in relation to the coverage data that it receives from suppliers in the open market review. There is commercial sensitivity with supplier’s expansion plans, as it is often the first supplier who provides the new connections and secures the commercial success in that area.

If the local body was in the early stages of a new open market review, it would be advantageous to discuss with them whether sharing the data with the district council could form part of any non-disclosure agreements at this stage. If the open market review has already been run, then the district council should look to agree a new non-disclosure agreement with the local body to allow them to share their mapping.

There appears to be quite a wide divide in what mapping local bodies share publicly on their webpages. However, we have identified that the local bodies listed below have publicly accessible mapping that allows members of the public to identify if an address has fibre or is within a fibre expansion plan. 

We would encourage the district to build a solid working relationship with their local body to publicly share their data so that residents and businesses have a clearer picture of what is happening in their area. We were able to grow our relationship with the local body with weekly catch ups and, as the project progressed, we have been able to identify areas where we could provide assistance – such as facilitating the process for new poles connected to a contract the local body manages and identifying areas of overbuild through the champion programme. Being a non-unitary council the district chief executive has led discussions to engage with the county council by supporting the case for collaborative working between the upper and lower tier council. The next phase of any fibre rollout will be to encourage uptake and so greater transparency of availability is going to be important.

Building a relationship with broadband suppliers

The first challenge is to identify which supplier operates in an area. It is important to differentiate between a supplier (the company that builds the physical infrastructure) and a service provider (a company that provides the broadband service), although noting that some companies both build the physical network and provide the internet service over it (such as Airband or Jurassic Fibre). This should be information that the local body hold and are able to share without any issues.

Once the suppliers were identified, this information was collated on our website with an attached disclaimer addressing that the list may not be exhaustive and calling for expressions of interest from other suppliers to be included. We discovered that while the local body holds a list of all the fibre providers and larger fixed wireless companies, some smaller emerging companies were not initially accounted for. The list of suppliers operating in our area can be viewed on the South Hams District Council webpage and in the table below.

List of operating suppliers:
Company Fibre Fixed Wireless Mobile Broadband
Airband Yes Yes Yes
City Fibre (Plymouth and surrounding areas) Yes No No
Cloud Wireless No Yes Yes
Full Fibre Ltd (Ivybridge and surrounding areas) Yes No No
Gigaclear Yes No No
Jurassic (Okehampton and surrounding areas) Yes No No
Openreach Yes No No
Radio Fibre No Yes Yes
Skylight broadband No Yes Yes
Virgin Media Yes No Yes
Voneus No Yes No
Wifix No Yes No

 

Table listing all the broadband suppliers known to be operating in South Hams or West Devon and if the supplier provides fibre, fixed and mobile broadband.

 

When contact was made with the suppliers it was helpful to establish a rolling four weekly catch up to understand how expansion plans progress.

A Head of Construction at Airband commented:

This role is pivotal due to the ongoing issues around build. The digital connectivity manager has been a huge help to Airband, we are grateful for all the support we have been provided to date.

 A Community Engagement Executive at Airband commented:

The digital connectivity manager has been a great contact for this region and has provided ongoing support to the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) fibre roll out for this area. The ongoing engagement has been extremely useful for both parties to ensure that we have an open and transparent view of the government fibre roll out for the area.

 A Director of Strategic Partnerships at Jurassic Fibre commented:

Whilst we don't have extensive current plans in South Hams, it has helped us tailor our approach in West Devon in order to advance areas within our build schedule where we have been made aware of specific demand.

Despite the independent position of a district council, we still met resistance with suppliers sharing data on coverage and particularly expansion plans. For example, one national supplier did not provide a list of addresses where they had already laid fibre, recognising that if competitors had this information, it would give them the advantage to expand to the surrounding areas.

It may be helpful to have a draft non-disclosure agreement to share with suppliers who would be prepared to share their data provided an agreement is signed.

Communication strategy

Communication has been critical in many parts of this digital connectivity project from raising the profile within the council to engaging with residents and businesses and broadband suppliers.

Setting up webpages

The first task was to set up a digital connectivity section on the council website to provide a hub for people to find information.  The creation of our webpages involved working with internal graphic designers to establish the tone for the pages and an identification banner that would be used to identify the project. In terms of the content on the webpages it would be advisable to design it in a way to allow for further sections and pages to be included as the project progresses.

The topics covered in our webpages are as follows:

  • how fast is your broadband
  • community fibre groups
  • mobile boost scheme
  • connecting Devon and Somerset
  • can I get faster broadband?
  • community broadband champions
  • broadband infrastructure suppliers
  • community broadband FAQs.

 A demand-led project - building a database

The next stage was to establish the demand for better broadband across our authority area. In creating this database, it not only demonstrated the importance of digital connectivity to elected members but also demonstrated to local suppliers the district council is able to communicate to a large number of potential customers.

To establish this demand driven database we built an online form within the software package Netcall, owned by Liberty Create to capture the following information:

  • personal details
  • status (resident, ward or parish councillor, business)
  • details of existing internet connection
  • whether the respondent was part of any existing community led broadband projects
  • whether the respondent was happy for their details to be shared
  • details of the broadband champion programme.

On the main digital connectivity webpage, we provided the link to the online form, which was designed to stand out from the information pages below by placing it in an eye catching yellow box.

To drive people to complete the online form we first communicated with all elected ward members and then all parish and town councils.  The council also held databases within their communication platform ‘GovDelivery’ that could be used to inform people who had signed up to other relevant newsletters about the digital connectivity project. 

The council social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter were also used to direct people to the website.

Once the database of people was established we have kept in contact by sending newsletters of how the project is progressing and any relevant updates on digital connectivity work. The database provides a channel for information dissemination and events where speakers from local suppliers can communicate with residents to help them to understand the different options available.

Broadband champions

The second aim with the online form was to establish if residents would be willing to volunteer their time to become broadband champions. The aim for the broadband champions was to become digital ambassadors for their respective areas and help build a picture from the ground up of what the digital connectivity needs were in a local area. The champion work has followed learning from the Broadband Champion Toolkit produced by the local body for Essex, Superfast Essex, in collaboration with the LGA.

The online form included an option for the resident to volunteer to be a champion. Respondents were able to define their own community area rather than being directed to cover the whole parish or village, recognising that the community one feels connected to may not be aligned to the historic parish boundaries.

Defining their purpose

The broadband champions allow the council to utilise and identify a network of people looking for better broadband in their defined geographic area. The champions have been left undirected in how to establish this database, but it was recommended that parish councils could be a focal point through existing communication channels. 

In smaller community areas it is anticipated the champion can contact the households directly. The champions were sent an information pack which included an Excel template to build the database, this includes details of all the known options for improving broadband in the district.  In completing the spreadsheet, it will guide some people to how they can improve their broadband already and utilise tools available.

The main purpose of the database, however, is to identify clusters of addresses that are eligible for the Government’s Gigabit Voucher scheme to assist them to identify a supplier to deliver a fibre project funded by the vouchers. This exercise also allows the champions to identify areas with poor mobile connectivity to flag the areas that should be prioritised for future funding.

The broadband champions have been listed on our website so that residents in their defined areas can get in touch about any digital connectivity questions.  We will support them in this role, helping to get responses from any suppliers or the local body as relevant.  

Lastly, the champions will be in a good position to facilitate and help unblock any local issues on the delivery of digital connectivity projects. For example, the need for a new telegraph pole is often met with resistance in a community or a landowner will not agree to a wayleave, so by embedding a champion network we can help advocate the importance of proposed installation or agreement.

Webinars and training

To provide the champions with the information and resources, we ran a live webinar over several sessions. Local suppliers and the local body were also invited to the webinars, along with ward members, parish and town councillors. The webinar provided attendees with:

  • details of the broadband champion’s role
  • an explanation of Government organisations involved in digital connectivity
  • the role of the local body and the district council in digital connectivity
  • a summary of technologies that allow someone to access the internet
  • latest details of digital connectivity across the district.

The webinar helped educate volunteers with limited knowledge of the digital connectivity landscape and provided an opportunity for queries.

Following the webinar an information pack was disseminated to all champions providing them with:

  • the PowerPoint slides
  • a recording of the webinar
  • Excel spreadsheet template for the database
  • privacy statement in terms of data collection in the database
  • reference document with further details than were given in the webinar.

Further events will be held to address specific areas as identified by the champions, supported by local suppliers as necessary.

A broadband champion commented:

The digital connectivity manager fills an urgent need to improve public information on ways available to individuals and companies to improve their access to broadband, especially via the installation of an optic fibre link. This need is particularly important given the opacity of private providers on what services are available and how better connectivity can best be achieved.

 A second broadband champion commented:

The digital connectivity manager has provided a focus for gaining information about possible superfast broadband solutions in our rural area, their limitations and hopefully, in the not too distant future, ways to improve coverage still further.

 A third broadband champion commented:

It has been really valuable to have the digital connectivity manager to help us understand the processes around the community broadband application process - it's been massively helpful and practically invaluable to have that inside support, and specifically to help with the technical insight for example, maps/coverage/scheme guidance and rules.

Issues

One of the main issues that has arisen to date is how to define the geographic area the champions proposed to cover and how to present the areas covered on the website in order for residents to contact their relevant champion. We have opted for a list of champions against wards, parishes and villages in a tabular format. Organising how to differentiate multiple volunteers in the same area posed an issue where the council required the individuals to decide who would be the primary name on the website.

There have been questions if the programme would provide remuneration for the champion’s time. The programme relies on the self-motivation of volunteers and those with a strong desire to support their community.  It is unknown at this point what the dropout rate will be, particularly if the champion resolves their own digital connectivity issues.

Finally, awareness should be given when recruiting a group of volunteers to the range of digital connectivity expertise in the group. You should ensure the materials are therefore aimed at those with the most limited understanding and knowledge to bring them to a baseline understanding within the group.

Supporting community groups

There have been several ways in which we are able to support community groups in improving their digital connectivity. We can identify which broadband infrastructure suppliers are operating in their area and make introductions. When a community group is looking to secure Gigabit Vouchers to make a fibre project viable, we created a dedicated webpage to direct people and highlight a trusted council backed scheme. In addition, we were also able to send mail outs to residents and businesses in a defined area to recruit further households to join a community fibre project.

The ways in which we can support community groups are still evolving, and we hope to be able to provide support as groups progress fibre projects funded by Gigabit Vouchers.

Cross-sector working

The project involves working and building relationships with various organisations, from suppliers to Central Government. We have found developing a good working relationship with the local body is vital, but many other organisations have also provided invaluable and on-going support.

The LGA partnership created links with several other local bodies, and through these we have connected and learnt from the experiences of other district councils who have established working relationships with their local body. We continue to build relationships with neighbouring district councils, recognising the shared experience we have sitting under the same local body.

We have also been invited to attend informative discussions hosted by the Digital Connectivity Working Group within the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT).

Integration with planning

Digital connectivity has strong links with strategic planning in a district council. It is important to ensure that the Local Plan includes a strong digital connectivity policy to bring this forward in the consideration of developing a new site. For sites of 20 or more dwellings, Openreach will provide fibre to the new units due to the additional business they will generate.  For smaller schemes, the developer would need to pay for fibre to be brought to the site, and it is these developments that the policy needs to be focussed on addressing.  

It has to be acknowledged that in many sites the infrastructure to bring fibre to the site will need to cross third party land that is outside the control of the developer. However, legislation has been relaxed to enable broadband infrastructure to be installed without the need for planning permission where there is landowner agreement (General Permitted Development Order 2015, Part 16, Class A, Condition A.2 (5)). Therefore, while a digital connectivity policy is unable to ensure fibre is brought to site, the policy can ensure the applicant has investigated what options exist before the site is developed.

In our district, digital connectivity has been identified within the top three most pressing concerns in neighbourhood planning groups. The digital connectivity policy below was drafted and has been shared with these groups to include it as a policy to improve connectivity in neighbourhood plans. We will ensure a similar policy is included in an updated Local Plan at the appropriate time and will highlight the validation list to request a connectivity statement on relevant applications.

Policy

The Neighbourhood Plan will seek on site infrastructure to support the installation of, and allow the future upgrade and maintenance of, fibre optic broadband technology.

  • All development is required to submit a connectivity statement to set out the proposed broadband provision. The statement shall include which broadband supplier(s) can provide full fibre or fixed wireless coverage to the development to provide gigabit capable broadband provision.
  • On sites of 10 dwellings and over and on all non-residential sites, all new properties must be served with an appropriate open access gigabit capable fibre optic infrastructure to enable high speed and reliable broadband connection in accordance with national and local objectives to increase coverage.
  • On sites of under 10 dwellings, all new properties shall be served with an appropriate open access fibre optic infrastructure to enable high speed and reliable broadband connection unless there is evidence which demonstrates that providing the required infrastructure is not feasible or economically viable.
  • Installed infrastructure should allow all premises that form part of the approved development to access superfast or better broadband prior to occupancy.
  • The creation of a building to act as a fibre hub to enable fibre connections within the area will be supported.

 

When there is a rollout of fibre by an alternative network supplier (any supplier other than Openreach) in your area, whether it is publicly funded or commercial, it will inevitably mean new infrastructure is required.  While alternative network suppliers are able to use existing telegraph poles and ducts, the expansion of a new network will likely require new poles and cabinets which can result in confusion and complaints from the public. To help the smooth rollout of fibre in your district, and minimise time spent on complaints from residents and members, it is useful to understand what rights broadband suppliers and the public have in terms of installing new infrastructure for broadband.

The legislation that controls whether development requires planning permission is the ‘General Permitted Development Order 2015, as amended’ and this states that infrastructure related to telecommunications is permitted development, subject to the specified restrictions, therefore does not require planning permission. Furthermore, the operator is not required to apply for prior approval for telegraph poles, cabinets and cables related to fixed line broadband, even on protected article 2(3) land.

However, there is separate legislation for electronic communication operators, which is ‘The Electronic Communications Code Regulations (2003)’ and later amended. This states the code operator must give the council 28 days notice in writing. The council is able to request conditions on the installation, but if the operator deems the conditions unreasonable, they are not required to comply. Amendments to the Electronic Code have removed the additional protection previously given in conservation areas, protected areas or near listed buildings, such that only 28 days notice is required in these areas also.

 There is no statutory requirement for the operator or the council to put up site notices or undertake public consultation in relation to new infrastructure. However, a Code of Practice relating to Electronic Communications Code was agreed by a select group of organisations and makes a number of recommendations on consultation and positioning of infrastructure. It recommends operators erect site notices to inform residents of where new infrastructure is planned.

The table provides a comparison to illustrate the differing requirements for different size development, from a house to a telegraph pole, to demonstrate the light touch approach for broadband infrastructure.
  New house large extension Large mobile mast (not permitted development (PD)) Small mobile mast (PD) Telegraph pole, cabinet or line for fixed line broadband
Permitted development? No No Yes Yes - if 28 days notice given to LPA
Planning permission needed? Yes Yes No No
Public consultation required? Yes Yes In some locations No
Public objections considered? Yes Yes In some locations No
Additional protection in conservation area Yes Yes No No
Does Local Planning Committee (LPA) approve it? Yes Yes Yes - prior approval No
Telecoms Code Regulations 5-8 N/A N/A N/A 28 days notice given to the LPA, LPA can impose limited conditions

 

We are working proactively with the alternative network suppliers in our area to support their fibre rollout. In return they have provided the locations of new infrastructure in advance so that this can be shared with members, parish and town councils to forewarn them of the upcoming works.

We recommend a district council engages with any alternative network suppliers in the district so that they share infrastructure plans in advance. Minimising complaints and confusion are mutually beneficial as the supplier will want to develop trust in their company to secure customers for their service in the future. 
If the supplier is unwilling to share infrastructure plans, it would be sensible to be set to be alerted by any relevant telecommunications notification or application received by the council. If you have an understanding of a fibre rollout in your area this will provide a clear picture of whether the operator is giving due notice.

The installation of new telegraph poles can be highly controversial in a local community, and so being notified before they are erected can be useful to the broadband champion in the area who can help explain the need for the pole to the community.

Spatial mapping

One of the first hurdles in progressing this digital connectivity project was understanding the spatial picture of connection speeds across our district.  The local body holds detailed mapping of connection speeds at an address level developed from data obtained through open market reviews. However, as already discussed, much of this data has been provided with non-disclosure agreements and so cannot easily be shared with the district council.

The Ofcom Connected Nations report provides country wide data on connection speeds down to a postcode level and is publicly accessible. When establishing broadband connection speeds, it is recommended to use the ‘fixed output area’ data set as this includes volumes of premises, not just percentage coverage. In collaboration with the LGA, Westminster Council have produced a toolkit which has a step by step guide to producing maps from the Ofcom data.

Another open access source of data is from the website ‘Think Broadband’ which provides detailed mapping that identifies different suppliers. Think Broadband have confirmed their data is either obtained directly from a small number of suppliers or from investigative work by Think Broadband themselves. If the majority of properties within a postcode area can access broadband from a supplier, it is shown as available for that area.

Openreach

Understanding the structure of the Openreach network would be very useful as most properties historically, and currently, access the internet over existing telephone cables. Properties are generally connected to a cabinet which then feeds back to an exchange, and it would be helpful to understand which cabinets and exchanges serve which properties. This information can be obtained on a property by property basis using this BT website, but the only way to find the location of the cabinet is by walking around an area to identify the cabinet number as identified from the BT website. The cabinet serving the property is not always the one located closest to that property.

The reason this information would be useful is that if Openreach are asked to provide fibre to a community group, the network build will be dictated by the existing infrastructure pattern. Having an understanding of this may help a community know whether to include or exclude properties in a potential community led fibre project.

When Openreach have connected up an area with fibre to the premise, this can still only be identified on a property-by-property basis using their postcode checker. We have found that Openreach do not announce or share addresses that are made live with fibre.

Useful websites include:

 

Conclusion

The main finding of the project to date is that the public find it difficult to understand what options are available to them, in terms of improving their digital connectivity.  The information is dispersed over a number of online locations, and when someone receives direct marketing from a company it is very hard for the resident or business to establish if what they are being offered is their best option.

The creation of the digital webpages on the council website provides a valuable independent source of information for people to be directed to.  In addition, we are developing an online flow chart to guide someone through the different options they have to improve their digital connectivity. A large percentage of officer time has been fielding questions which this online tool would address, providing an effective and economical resource.

The broadband champion programme is also intended to provide residents and businesses a point of contact who understands what is happening in their local area. It is too early in the programme to draw any conclusions of its success.

Looking ahead, when the fibre rollout has been delivered to a high percentage of residents, there will be a need to assist residents and businesses to understand which internet service providers operate on which networks. This is when having interactive online mapping that illustrates whether fibre is available at an address would be highly beneficial, and so pressure should be put on the local body to create this, if they have not already.  Added to this is the issue of digital inclusion which this project has not yet explored but needs to be considered, particularly as the DERI tool illustrates areas of both councils with communities at risk of digital exclusion.

We have found establishing a cooperative and mutually beneficial working relationship with the local body is also key to the success of a digital connectivity role at the district council. The local body has established relationships with most of the partner organisations and holds the most up to date data on connection speeds. While they may not be able to share all of this information, being able to discuss specific areas and make introductions to partner organisations has been invaluable to the success of our project.