WHOLE swathes of Somerset could remain without superfast broadband until 2022 due to a “catalogue of incompetence” by the company tasked with the roll-out.

Gigaclear was given the contract for most of phase two of the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) programme, which is designed to provide broadband to properties and businesses where a commercial solution was not deemed viable.

But the company has fallen so far behind on delivery that it is technically defaulting on its contract for three of the five areas that it covers.

As Somerset’s MPs criticised Gigaclear’s performance in Westminster on Tuesday morning (November 13), Somerset County Council’s policies and place scrutiny committee met in Taunton to discuss the problem.

Katriona Lovelock from CDS admitted there would still be “delayed delivery in a number of areas” – and was unable to specify which area would be kept waiting.

She said in her written report that Gigaclear was technically “in default” over three of its five lots in the contract – Lot 1 (which includes Weston-super-Mare), Lot 2 (including Bridgwater, Burnham-on-Sea, Highbridge and Taunton) and Lot 5 (Exeter and east Devon).

She said: “We have not formally issued a default notice.

“The contracts do not include financial penalties for delay, but do provide for default notices to be issued and options to close the contracts. These alternatives will be considered as part of making a decision on the way forward.

“Although there are no financial penalties in the contracts, Gigaclear is required to finance the build until there is delivery. CDS does not pay until the build has been completed.”

She defended CDS’ record, arguing: “We have delivered a significant number of superfast premises across the region over the last five years – we have funded 46 per cent of coverage, in comparison to the commercial sector which delivered 40 per cent.“ 

Gigaclear outlined its revised delivery plans at meetings on October 30 and November 7, which CDS was currently evaluating.

Michele Cusack, the council’s director of economic and community infrastructure commissioning, said: “Gigaclear is still committed to the project at this time, and is still committed to providing the full fibre provision which it is contracted to do.”

But she admitted that 55,000 premises across the region would still be without superfast broadband by the end of Phase II – including 11,300 in Somerset.

Councillor John Thorne described the update as “a litany of new excuses” and called for the entire CDS board to stand down.

He said: “Some time ago, I described this situation as being a scandal – we’ve moved beyond that. It is a calamitous state of affairs.

“The headline from the briefing held on November 7 was that Gigaclear wants a two-year extension until 2022. A lot of communities that I represent should have been connected in January and February of this year – so for them it’s a four-and-a-half-year delay. It find that totally unacceptable.

“Out there in the real world, there are people who want to run businesses, create jobs and make a living – and they can’t do that because they haven’t got the broadband that they were promised.

“I just find this whole thing a complete and utter shambles. If members of this committee are really concerned about delivery of superfast broadband, I think we need to start again.”

Councillor Tessa Munt questioned why no financial penalties had been levied against Gigaclear, asking whether this was a “failure of government”.

She added: “Is there a way that due diligence could have been improved? I go to remote Greek villages in the mountains and they get better speeds than I do.”

Ms Lovelock responded that CDS was working within the limit of contracts based on Broadband Delivery UK’s model, stating: “We have to work within the framework that they have provided.

“The Gigaclear contract has £31m of public subsidies which can go into the lots, of which so far only £500,000 has been used. Gigaclear is expected to provide the lion’s share of funding.”

Gigaclear will be putting £60m into the five lots for which it holds the contract, along with investing £57m on a commercial basis.

The remaining lot – Lot 4, which covers much of north Devon – is being covered by Airband wireless technology.

Ms Lovelock said that wireless was a less expensive solution than fibre, but added: “The perception at the moment is that fibre technology is a more future-proofed technology. To move towards wireless would go against all current government thinking.”

Wells MP James Heappey held a debate on CDS and Gigaclear’s performance in Westminster Hall while the scrutiny meeting was taking place.

Mr Heappey said that CDS “did not have an easy task” in covering its area, stating that it had “no shortage of effort or expertise” and “all the right intentions”.

However, he questioned “the soundness of Gigaclear’s position” in light of the delays, and asked whether continued state aid was “legitimate” in view of more commercial providers now offering fibre directly to the premises.

Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow went further, stating that many of her constituents felt “ill-served” by ” a catalogue of incompetence”.

Mr Heappey continued that Gigaclear’s fate had been caused by the collapse of Carillion and its failure to comprehend the task ahead of it.

He said: “Gigaclear’s position is what it is because they were supported by the Carillion group, which met its demise.

“I think it is now clear that Gigaclear has quite inexplicably failed to understand that a lot of roads in Devon and Somerset are single-track lanes, which require somewhat more endeavour to dig up and somewhat more planning around road closures—it is not possible simply to go down one side of the road or even on the verge to the left or right.

“There was overconfidence on the part of senior management at Gigaclear: they were telling the CDS and our county councils that all was fine, when it was obvious that things had not progressed as they should have.

“In the light of that, we need to ensure that what Gigaclear now says it is capable of doing is realistic. It has already over-promised once.”

In a briefing to MPs in early-November, Gigaclear stated it would deliver 40 to 50 per cent of what it had originally promised by 2020, with the remainder being delivered by 2022.

Mr Heappey said that a rise in the number of companies offering commercial fibre to the premises meant that Gigaclear “might not hit its uptake targets” – which would put further pressure on its ability to deliver the infrastructure.

He added: “I have come to realise in the last few weeks that the reason why so many of my constituents have not been in touch with me about the Gigaclear delay is that they have sorted themselves out.

“It certainly underlines the case for re-assessing the priorities that Gigaclear has been set by CDS, so that Gigaclear focuses on areas where we know the market will not be able to provide over the next 24 months.” 

“There is absolutely no point in spending taxpayers’ money in areas where the market is providing.”

Michael Ellis MP, parliamentary under-secretary for digital, culture, media and sport, said a further £4.7M would be spent on broadband in Somerset as a result of efficiency savings from earlier in the roll-out, and that he would ensure that state aid funding would be available beyond 2020 if required.

He said: “There is also no doubt that we are making good progress in providing rural broadband coverage. I recognise that there are issues with the remaining harder-to-reach localities.

“We do, however, need to finish the job and it is our strong intention to do that. We will also continue to push hard on full-fibre coverage, including through the project in Somerset.”