Campaign for faster broadband in Cheltenham

Superfast broadband is vital to the success of any town. Centres with low broadband speeds risk falling behind their rivals. 

That’s why it’s so frustrating that significant parts of Cheltenham are missing out on the national superfast broadband rollout. Unlike Gloucester, there are scores of homes and businesses in Cheltenham that are being overlooked for this vital service. Why? First, a little background. The UK is in the middle of a £2.5 billion project to upgrade the country’s communications network, replacing the old copper connections to the local phone exchange with fibre. Copper is pretty ancient technology. Its cables are prone to interference and even small distances reduce broadband speeds. Fibre, on the other hand, is immune to interference and ‘attenuation’ and therefore dramatically boosts overall speeds. 

No surprise then that the aim is that 90 per cent of Britain should end up with superfast fibre broadband. Much of that work is being delivered by Openreach, the company responsible for connections between private properties and the telephone exchanges. We need this urgently in Gloucestershire. In 2013, the percentage of the county’s households not receiving a 2MB average service was 11%, compared to just 5% in London. Gloucestershire had the 131st slowest average speeds out of the 202 areas.

And yet whilst the county overall is starting to benefit from the rollout, areas of Cheltenham are being left behind. That is because Openreach have decided that replacing the old copper connections is not commercially viable in specific areas. Anticipating these gaps, the government set up its own scheme (Broadband Delivery UK) which was designed to step in in these circumstances. Our local version of that is called Fastershire, and covers Gloucestershire and Herefordshire Councils. It is funded by the government and is intended to intervene where the private sector won’t.

The conundrum here is that Fastershire don’t seem to agree with Openreach that these areas of Cheltenham are not commercially viable to upgrade. And because of EU state aid guidelines, there are restrictions on the extent to which the Government can intervene in markets deemed to have ‘commercial potential’.

It’s all a rather complicated mess. The bottom line is that parts of Cheltenham are stuck in limbo – not ‘urban’ enough to satisfy Openreach that they are commercially viable, and not ‘rural’ enough to qualify for state support. It all seems rather perverse. 

That’s why I have written to BT asking them to explain their decision to exclude these areas from their commercial rollout and to look at potential ways to get around this problem. The current situation won’t do. If Cheltenham is going to keep up (and outperform!) its rivals, we can’t afford to have one hand tied behind our back. 

So, if you know of other broadband infrastructure issues affecting our prospects here in Cheltenham please email me at alex@alexchalk.com.