Hopes raised that £1m Argyll broadband scheme can be saved

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GigaPlus Argyll’s board is hopeful it can save a £1 million scheme to bring superfast broadband to 1,600 remote homes on Mull, Iona, Lismore, Colonsay, Luing, Islay, Jura and in Craignish after a crunch meeting last week.

The groundbreaking community-run project was granted £988,000 of government funding towards the network’s staged roll-out by Community Broadband Scotland (CBS), a Scottish Government initiative led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

Directors feared their five-year project had collapsed into an ‘impossible mess’ after their appointed contractor, AB Internet, went bust. They then faced an ‘absurd’ scenario where GigaPlus Argyll was burdened with eight masts it could not use, which would probably have to be removed at further public cost, after only two houses were connected.

Moray Finch, chairman of GigaPlus Argyll, described the board’s meeting with CBS and HIE in Craignure last Wednesday as ‘the most optimistic since the demise of AB Internet five months ago’.

Mr Finch said: ‘It is too early to make a judgement on the final outcome, but we are hopeful that with support from the Scottish Government, the ideas being developed by CBS might help us to get the project back on track.’

GigaPlus Argyll’s directors will meet Fergus Ewing, cabinet secretary for the rural economy and connectivity, at the Scottish Parliament on October 24.

Commenting after last Wednesday’s meeting on Mull, an HIE spokesperson explained: ‘Right from the start GigaPlus Argyll was an ambitious pilot project.

‘Its aim was to deliver a superfast broadband wireless network across multiple island communities, to reach some of Scotland’s hardest-to-reach broadband areas. It was never going to be easy and it took a lot of work by the community, with CBS support, to develop a delivery model which had the potential to be viable.

‘The technical and legal challenges of building wireless networks, both in Scotland and in Wales, saw the collapse of established wireless provider AB Internet.

‘Having won the contract, it ultimately did not possess sufficient cash flow to deliver what were challenging geographic fixed wireless solutions, subject to complex state aid regulations. The delivery challenges caused significant delays to the roll-out of infrastructure.

‘AB Internet was unable to secure sufficient additional funding to meet this challenge and entered into administration in May 2017. This was a huge blow for the project and has demonstrated the risks and challenges the commercial market faces.

‘There are very strict regulations around the use of public funds in broadband projects, both fibre roll-out and community-led development, and these will have to be a consideration for the community going forward.

‘Some £633,000 of public money has been invested to date.

‘The community owns the masts purchased and there is a potential option for them to lease these. Suppliers may invest in and use the masts if there are enough customers to make this viable.

‘CBS has been working with GPA since May to work through the complexity of these options.

‘This work includes a realistic assessment of the advantages and risks associated with each option, to enable the community to make a decision on the next course of action. CBS attends every board meeting and is in regular dialogue to provide the group with the most up-to-date and relevant information.’

AB Internet also supplied the CBS-supported project Loch Tay Internet, but HIE assured: ‘The Loch Tay project is not in jeopardy. It is a live network currently serving around 80 premises in the Loch Tay area, and as such it was essential that immediate action was taken to prevent any disruption to vital broadband services in the area. This was successfully achieved without a break in service to any network subscribers.’