Capitalising on council assets: How Colchester is competing via ultrafast broadband

Colchester Borough Council has utilised its own CCTV network to deploy a fibre broadband network across its city centre for less than 10% of the cost of installing it from scratch.

The Commercial Imperative

Colchester Borough Council, like most other local authorities, is searching for new income streams to replace declining Government grant.  Colchester has been an early entrant in this field and the results are now starting to emerge across a range of opportunities.

The test for our business ideas is will they deliver a range of economic, social, environmental and commercial benefits. The following is one example among several that 'sweat the assets' which the Council has engaged upon.

The project: Commercialising Council Infrastructure

Funded by the South East LEP and Section 106 monies this £340,000 project, driven by Colchester Borough Council in partnership with an industry delivery partner, has enabled some 850 small-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and 1,100 residential addresses in Colchester town centre to access pure-fibre gigabit broadband over the past two years.

Colchester town centre can rightly call itself the best connected place in the East of England, offering digital distinctiveness which is fuelling higher economic growth, inward investment and exposing further digital opportunities.

The Council owns an extensive CCTV infrastructure, whose network of ducting, cabinets and chambers enables any two points in the historic town centre to be connected together. For a number of years, the Council had considered the idea of upgrading and purposing this infrastructure to provide next-generation broadband access to the town centre. The need was clear: a Centre for Cities survey in January 2015, ranked Colchester 57th of the 65 largest towns and cities benchmarked for town centre broadband speeds.  The report galvanised the Council’s Economic Growth team to look again at the possibility of using the CCTV system to improve connectivity.

Market failure: the opportunity exposed

Early phases of the project included extensive consultation on State Aid issues, compliance with the relevant laws governing telecommunications, and consultation with industry. The latter underscored the investment gap by the major telecoms operators to deploy fibre in a medium-size town centre location, and highlighted the commercial opportunities the project team believed remained otherwise concealed.

As the major players' business models could not provide affordable and high bandwidth synchronous (equal upstream and downstream) broadband speeds for, primarily, business, the rationale for addressing these apparent market failures through the project was clear.

Designing the network for unrivalled data delivery

Preliminary surveying and endoscopic inspection revealed that some parts of the infrastructure had fallen into disrepair, and it was necessary to bring it up to an acceptable standard to house telecoms ducting. Rigid subducting was then passed through this system, to create “loops” encircling the town centre and providing spurs to connected locations slightly further from the town centre. Buried almost a metre beneath the roads and pavements of the town centre, fibre cables passing through this infrastructure can now deliver data at previously unimaginable speeds.

The network designers ensured all connectable addresses were within 100m of a distribution point, to minimise the cost of the so-called “final drops” (connections between a distribution point and a customer premises, which traditionally involve significant costs and the requirement to obtain way leave permissions). The distribution points have been installed in locations – mainly street cabinets and wall-mounted enclosures – that negate the need to obtain further permissions to do street works.

Scandinavian inspiration for the business model

The business model underpinning the deployment is modelled on one used elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia. The Council owns the core infrastructure, referred to as “passive” since it does not include the actual provision of equipment for digital connectivity.

Following a competitive tender process, a network operator was appointed, which oversees the relationship with service and business connectivity providers to offer connectivity solutions to end users. The Council does not market or deliver broadband services itself in any way. However, it does receive an income from rental of the infrastructure to service providers and from a revenue share on the income they receive from customers.

While the chosen business model allows FTTP (fibre to the premises) connectivity to be available at a price up to 60% lower than the traditional leased line (private circuit) solution, early market results have underscored the great sensitivity of customers, especially in small businesses, to broadband pricing.

Imagine Living & Working in Colchester in 2022 … and the Opportunity for Business

Taking advantage of Colchester's digital approach will make it a better place for business.  Being based Colchester will enable business to be more:

Profitable: increase sales and profits

  • Identify new markets, develop new products/services

Inspiring: a creative place fostering new ideas for business

  • Improved intelligence for business – profile and target your customers more effectively
  • Improved planning of business operations – route planning for sales, optimise delivery times, waste management, save costs

Environmentally friendly: making an important contribution to sustaining the Planet

  • Save costs / reduce carbon - with smarter use of energy, materials and water through connecting business utility monitoring systems

Flexible: an even better place to live and work

  • Work anywhere – improve business flexibility through improved mobile devices and Ultrafast Broadband access
  • Smart home solutions – the ‘Internet of Things’ will connect everything from fridges to TVs making life much easier

Impacts and aspirations: cost savings, digital distinctiveness, tech sector development

The repurposing of the existing CCTV infrastructure allowed the Council to deploy the fibre network for less than 10% of the cost of installing a comparable infrastructure from scratch. Moreover, it has helped facilitate the development of the Council’s Digital Strategy, which covers a five-year period and which will be published in the summer of 2017, setting out Colchester’s ambitious plan to extend full-fibre access to the Borough’s key economic development and regeneration zones.

The town centre deployment gives Colchester a head start over many comparable local authorities, now competing for inward investment in key tech sectors including creative and digital.

Want to know more?

For more information on this Project, please contact Steven Eke in Economic Growth, Colchester Borough Council.