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Connecting Devon and Somerset is set to expand a pioneering community-led broadband scheme following successful pilots in Devon and North Somerset.

The Community Challenge Fund scheme enables local communities to select an approved private sector partner and co-produce broadband solutions that work best for them with financial support and advice from CDS.

Pilots have been successfully trialled in Harford and Lower Combe in Devon with Openreach and Airband, and a third in Yatton, North Somerset with Openreach is due for completion this summer.

In total, 138 homes and businesses will have access to full fibre to the premise superfast broadband with the capability to deliver ultrafast speeds. The pilots have been supported by £70,000 of funding from CDS.

Now CDS is launching a consultation to identify private sector partners interested in working with local communities in an expanded scheme. CDS intends to launch the scheme later this year.

Councillor Rufus Gilbert, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Economy and Skills and CDS board member said: “The pilots have proved really effective at enabling local people in communities with different needs to co-produce a great broadband solution that works best for them with CDS support.

Each community has had different characteristics and challenges, ranging from deeply rural areas and protected landscapes to urban fringes. We want to apply the good practice learned from these pilots to help other communities co-produce their own solutions. This will add a new dimension to complement our existing broadband programme and support the Government’s full fibre policy.”

Simon Palmer, Civils Project Manager for Airband said: “Connecting Devon and Somerset’s remit is about reducing digital exclusion, particularly in rural pockets, and we are talking about pockets that are really hard to reach so you have got to think differently about how you reach them, and I think in Lower Combe working with CDS and the community, Airband really have.

What Airband has done in this instance is to provide a fibre connection to the premises. So, every property in the valley can have a cable going to the eaves or the roof of the house and we provide that from a nearby telegraph pole, some of which are existing and some of which are new that we’ve put in. There’s perhaps a kilometre of new fibre that’s been put into this village and that runs back to a pole and then back to our radio network. Without the buy in from the community and their co-operation and help it just wouldn’t work.”

Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, said: “This is a community in Lower Combe that was completely left behind and even though broadband came to a nearby community of Holne, because of the geography of this part of the moor there was nothing here, so it’s amazing to meet people here whose lives have been transformed by having that connection through the internet. It’s been a fantastic team effort.”

Jo Rumble, Communities Officer for Dartmoor National Park said: “It has been great to continue working with CDS and Airband to extend their superfast broadband network even further into Dartmoor. The innovative use of both fixed wireless and fibre has brought superfast connectivity to one of our most difficult to reach communities deep in the valley at Combe in a way that respects Dartmoor’s wonderful landscape.”

Sally Sutton, Lower Combe resident, said: “I don’t think in this day and age anybody has a choice, you have to have the internet and it is whatever is available in your local area, but if you can get your community together and work on it together you’ve got a much better chance than trying to do it individually.”

John Pope, Harford resident, said: “People are running serious businesses, even from a village as tiny as this one, so the guys at the top of the village needed serious bandwidth. Now we’ve got an absolutely rock steady and inexpensive broadband service that never varies, works all the time, can’t fault it.”

Gary Streeter, MP for South West Devon, said: “Why should people be disconnected just because they live in a wonderful rural location like Harford. In an area like Devon, one size does not fit all. We have got to come up with small, innovative, locally tailored schemes and this is a very good example of that.”

Devon County Council Leader and Councillor for the area John Hart said: “Harford is a very isolated community. Before CDS piloted this solution, many residents had very poor broadband connections. The pilot has proved that with the community taking up their grant facilities, pooling them and BT matching it, CDS has been able to give the whole of this community fibre to the premises.”

Commenting on the Harford pilot, Shaun Dale, Senior Project Manager for BT said: “It’s been a journey but we’ve extended fibre into a place where the main programme wasn’t going to go and Harford is probably one of the more remote areas on the edge of Dartmoor. Bringing fibre here has helped the immediate community go from zero broadband to Gigabit speeds if that’s what they wish. It’s a process that works really well and it delivers broadband to places that otherwise would be waiting a long time to get very, very good speeds.”

CDS is committed to helping communities get superfast broadband where the commercial market won’t invest without public subsidy. Over 300,000 homes and businesses now have access to superfast broadband thanks to the CDS programme. Nearly 40,000 more have access to improved broadband connections because of CDS. Every month hundreds more homes and businesses are getting access to superfast broadband thanks to CDS.

To provide additional opportunities for people to access broadband CDS has joined the national Better Broadband Voucher Scheme, which means any home or business with less than 2 Mbps and not part of planned deployment from another publicly funded scheme within the next 12 months can request a voucher.

The public take up of broadband services as a result of CDS is nearly 55%, in line with the UK average, and that is generating millions of pounds of additional investment back into the CDS programme thanks to the Government’s gainshare deal with BT.

The consultation CDS is launching will identify properly qualified and resourced private sector partners that local communities can work with in confidence as part of the Challenge Fund scheme. CDS is also taking the opportunity to test commercial market interest in delivering broadband to the region’s final 5% most difficult to reach communities and prudently examine potential alternatives for some of the current Phase 2 programme should that need arise.

In response to delays incurred by Gigaclear, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has backed CDS’ bid to extend over £18 million of Government funding for superfast broadband in Devon and Somerset to March 2023. There has been a positive response from HM Treasury which is finalising an agreement for the funding extension with DCMS subject to the Spending Review process.