Sunday, 17 January 2016

New build - new problems

This is a long story charting the woes of a new build estate and the pain that happens when the pace of building homes in the UK alongside the regulations that accompany the builds meets a lack of planning of broadband and telecomms infrastructure, with a few added bonuses.

New Forest Village in the Middleton suburb of South Leeds is an estate of approximately 1,300 properties. Permission was granted as part of efforts to try and regenerate this suburb, a suburb severely suffering from the decline of manufacturing in the north of England. Much of the surrounds are either former or current council / housing association housing. New Forest Village, in contrast, is nearly all private. It is a development built by a number of private builders as part of a consortium.

Ground was broken on the estate in 2005. It was completed and tools downed in 2014-15.

I've been involved with the estate in depth since 2012. At that time there were a couple of issues with the telecomms infrastructure.

Firstly residents were waiting months for phone lines. Openreach, the part of the BT Group tasked with installing lines to the estate, BT Group having struck an agreement with the consortium to do this, appeared unaware of how many premises their network would be required to serve. As a result there was a shortage of cables from parts of the estate back to the CO / exchange. This reached its zenith in 2013 when residents were waiting several months for basic telephone service, made all the more acute by a lack of quality mobile signal in a number of parts of the estate.

Secondly the only broadband service available was basic ADSL delivered from the Hunslet exchange. This exchange was 3.5km straight line distance and 6km+ of cable length from parts of the estate. ADSL is distance limited and residents were seeing speeds as slow as 0.5Mb/s. At that speed a 2 hour HD movie would take nearly 24 hours to download. It was faster to buy a Blu Ray from Amazon and use Prime. As far as streaming video goes - forget it at anything bar postage stamp size.

These issues were covered on local and national TV, and in online and offline press.

In my case I work from a home office. I was working regularly from the estate by 2013, and was on the brink of renting office space as I was simply unable to work as efficiently as I needed to on the broadband services available and we had no definitive date for when the services available would improve.

Eventually, in late 2012, a part of the estate received an upgrade in the form of Fibre to the Cabinet. A new street cabinet was erected and customers now connected to that drew their broadband signal from something that was a few hundred metres away, not 6km. Performance for some improved enormously. For others, however, the story was quite different and they were still stuck on ADSL.

I was focused on a specific area of the estate as that was where my now wife lived and where I thought there was the most chance of getting success. There were numerous hurdles in the way of getting the project done.

Firstly it took a while before Openreach updated their records. They took a snapshot of the estate from years before and used that information to make their decision as to whether or not to invest, the result being they thought there were a fraction of the homes connected that were actually there. When this was remedied Openreach confirmed, at the end of 2012, that they would be building fibre to the cabinet for the area I was focused on, dryly named Hunslet cabinet 82 after its designation within Openreach.

The decision was made but construction was a very slow process. Even by 2013, some 8 years after ground was broken, the road that the cabinet lay on, and where the newer cabinet needed to go, was still a private road, meaning that BT Group could not do any work on the roads or pavements there without the permission of the developers. This permission was not forthcoming as the developers feared that it would impact on their turning the road over to Leeds City Council. This is the adoption process, where after a period and upon agreement and subject to inspection the local authority take over maintenance of a road and pavements. Until this was done there was no way that Openreach could do their work. Even when the road did become public the costs to BT of building the cabinet were very high. As is customary and normal they were required to do full-width reinstatement on the pavements, not just filling in the holes they dug but completely resurfacing the pavements.

The completion of the project received considerable publicity from local and national television, print media, and indeed a press release on the Openreach website.

During 2013/14 Openreach also managed, at considerable cost, to bring enough copper from the exchange to deliver telephone and broadband services to all residents. The solution isn't the most elegant and lines will be both longer and lower quality than is ideal but the services are there. These exchange lines are required in order to purchase either ADSL broadband or the faster fibre to the cabinet solution.

By mid-2014 that first FTTC / fibre cabinet was completely full. All 288 connections were sold and a second one needed. This one was, perhaps somewhat bizarrely, far easier work. Openreach were able to build that second cabinet and reinstate just the pavement where they had excavated - no need to relay the entire pavement saving a considerable sum.

During 2012 BT Group weren't the only people our campaign was in discussion with. We approached other operators including Virgin Media. The entire Middleton and Belle Isle area was completely without any cable services, unusual given it's a residential suburb in the UK's 3rd most populous city. There were a few signs of cable services being a work in progress however it looked as though the money ran out literally overnight.

In early-mid 2015 Virgin Media began small-scale work at the west-most area of Middleton. This ramped up in scale as they went public with a plan to build to 4 million homes at a cost of £3 billion over the next 5 years. At one point there were nearly 40 simultaneous pieces of work going on in the Middleton and Belle Isle areas, and as of right now work is nearly complete on the project, after which time Virgin Media will move on to other parts of the city and other projects.

None of this work has happened in New Forest Village, and in the near future none will. An area with >65% take up of superfast broadband will have no ultrafast broadband options for the foreseeable future.

Virgin Media appreciated the high take up of Openreach services and were willing to spend half-again as much per property in New Forest Village as they would normally be prepared to to cater to the lay out of the estate, however the build is impossible. Many roads remain private on New Forest Village, perhaps 40% only are public roads. All of those private roads Leeds City Council would require to be in good repair when they take them over, meaning Virgin Media would be required to relay all pavements and roads they dig in full, dramatically increasing costs. Newly adopted roads, which would be a considerable proportion of that 40%, would also be required, as cabinet 82's road was, to be reinstated and relaid fully, not just the tracks they dig repaired.

Leeds City Council have every right to protect the public funds they manage and allowing streetworks on roads they have just adopted is perhaps a bridge too far.

Virgin Media have walked away. A considerable proportion of New Forest Village hasn't even begun the adoption process yet, and it will, best case, be at a guess 3 or more years before they can realistically return to the area. Their money is likely better spent building to 2,000 premises than New Forest Village's 1,300, and I have informed local residents that there's a pretty reasonable chance they simply won't come back, and no-one can blame them.New Forest Village is the only part of the Middleton Park ward that does not have access to ultrafast broadband. It is below average for urban areas and, at best, average across the UK, while having over three times the average level of demand.

For now, this isn't a deal breaker, however there are already some services that are out of reach for some on New Forest Village, and it's a complete unknown as to how long the existing services will be adequate for. The solution currently present is affected by distance from cabinet rather than exchange, and for those on the edges already some applications aren't an option.

Openreach probably cannot upgrade the estate for similar reasons to Virgin Media. Both of their solutions to higher speed broadband require construction work, none of which can feasibly be done to any scale within the estate.

The EU's digital agenda wants to see 50% of Europeans subscribed to a 100Mb or greater service by 2020. As of right now it's odds-on that a regeneration estate whose campaign helped bring ultrafast broadband throughout its local area will not have any such options. I guess it's one way the estate will have regenerated the area for sure.

The blame game is tempting, but who do you blame?

Virgin Media weren't in a position to bid on the initial telecomms infrastructure on the estate and even if they had been they may have been outbid.

Companies pay property developers for the right to supply to their estates.

Openreach were asked to produce an all-copper design and that is exactly what they have done. They cannot change the terms of that contract to replace copper with fibre.

Leeds City Council have a duty to council tax payers to spend their money as wisely as possible. As part of that it would be incredibly difficult for them to justify accepting roads under their maintenance that aren't in appropriate condition, or allowing them to be worked on shortly afterwards without full reinstatement. They need to invest in front-line services, not unnecessary road repair.

The developers cannot be held responsible for the original design either. It was done years ago, before superfast broadband was 'a thing'. They can, perhaps, be blamed to an extent for the time it has taken to construct the properties. It is not in their interests to bring too many properties up for sale at one time as it will affect their sale price. There was also an economic downturn part-way through that caused huge difficulties to housebuilding in the UK. The adoption process seems to have been extremely drawn out also, however I simply don't know enough about the facts to comment.

The 1,300 properties here seem to be victims mostly of timing.

Borrowing from a discussion with a journalist earlier today, the result of this will be that our household, as a 'top 1% user', will be dropping out of that 1% band simply because the services we need, and would pay for, to stay there aren't going to be available. As 4k video becomes more common people will see buffering, or be refused access to 4k services as their broadband is below the required level.

Most frustratingly: having played a part in bringing superfast broadband to hundreds and ultrafast to thousands, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.


  1. Wrong link may be

  2. Wrong link may be

  3. Surely the solution lies with the council? The insistence upon relaying much larger swathes of tarmac and concrete than Openreach or Virgin digs up is unreasonable. It is overly risk averse, as is the way of public sector bodies.
    Much better to work on some contract that allows the companies to simply relay the part they dig up. There could be some obligation to repair if required, freeing the council up of the concern to make such repairs in the future if required.
    It really seems to me that the public sector meets the private sector and is not operating in a commercial, real life manner.

    1. The council has to deal with residents complaining that the pavements don't look flawless, and in some cases complaining about cabinets that have been stood, verges being dug up and put back, etc.

      People will complain about anything given the chance.

      The councils seem terrified that they will be left with the bill if the undertakers are allowed to dig and things go wrong.

      I entirely agree that it's intensely risk averse, however given how strapped for cash many local authorities are aversion to risk is probably not surprising.

  4. Carl, you might be letting the developers off a bit lightly here when you say "Companies pay property developers for the right to supply to their estates."

    What typically happens with new housing estates is that the developers proactively contact Openreach to inform them of the build, then Openreach supply the ducting, manholes etc free of charge for the developers to install, ready for telecoms services to be deployed.

    It sounds like in your situation this did not happen hence the problems you are facing, or am I missing something?

    1. Developers were a consortium and spent an eternity building so no chance of FTTx.

      Developers informed Openreach of build, but forgot to inform how many units.

  5. If I was to undertake any home improvement or purchase a service that required holes digging outside other peoples new houses i'd expect to at least have a conversation with them about it...If I went ahead regardless that would be "Unreasonable". The road networks on new estates are not free of charge. The new residents all pay for these within the purchase price of their home. Why should resident A enjoy super fast broadband whilst resident B who has no interest in the service have a hole the size of a small country outside their house!