Liz Pole: Whitford celebrates new ultrafast broadband 

Community leaders involved in the project gathered together to celebrate

(L to R) The first resident to be connected, Maureen Davey, community liaison Denise Loud, parish councillors David Plowman, Richard Orsman, parish council chair for the Whitford community, Bill Marshall, project manager and director Matt Wallace and assistant project manager Lee Bayliss. - Credit: Edward Jacobs

Villagers in Whitford near Axminster have triumphed in securing their own ultrafast broadband network and Maureen Davey, is ‘absolutely delighted to be the first local resident to experience the improved service’. 

The project has been described as a five-year battle against political, bureaucratic, and financial obstacles, including the collapse of Connecting Devon and Somerset's Gigaclear contracts and the demise of their sub-contractors Carillion. 

Community spirit and hard work has ultimately led to the community being upgraded through the Openreach Community Fibre Partnerships scheme, and a contract worth £81,756 for a new fibre to the premises broadband network funded by government grants. 

Community Project Lead, Matthew Wallace set the ‘Connecting Whitford’ project in motion out of frustration with his current ADSL broadband service saying it was ‘terribly slow, constantly disconnecting and taking ages to download files’. 

Residents had felt let down when Openreach upgraded nearby Musbury to superfast broadband in 2015 but had passed over the needs of their own tucked away community as commercially unviable. 

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By 2017 local government-led rural broadband partnership, Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS), had contracted delivery of Whitford’s broadband to private company Gigaclear, with subcontractor Carillion undertaking the majority of the work. 

Carillion’s well publicised liquidation in 2018 set events in train, and Gigaclear’s contract with CDS never materialised and subsequently work in Whitford never started, Gigaclear abandoning partly built infrastructure in neighbouring Shute, Gigaclear had connected just 496 of the 28,689 properties in its overall contract. 

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The collapse of Gigaclear’s contracts meant the community could apply for funding through the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). A government ‘Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme’, enabling an installation grant of £1,500 for rural households and £3,500 for rural businesses - should now be available for Whitford residents through Openreach’s Community Fibre Partnerships programme. However, progress on obtaining the vouchers was slow and difficult, mired by CDS’s ongoing exclusive contractor arrangements. 

A community interest company was formed in Whitford in June 2019. Residents were initially sceptical of Openreach’s £80k quote. 

The voluntary team led by Matthew Wallace and Lee Bayliss, designed leaflets and posters, and set up a promotional stand at the Whitford Show, while Denise Loud, a prominent member of the village, took up the role of Broadband Community Liaison Officer. 

Parish council chair, Bill Marshall offered to help, and along with councillors David Plowman and Richard Orsman gave up spare time to help with the monumental task of residents’ online applications, door to door responses, surveys and information sharing. 

A phenomenal 74 of Whitford’s 124 residents had registered an interest by the time BBC Spotlight announced the cancellation of Gigaclear’s contract in October 2019. 

Then began the process of coordinating the needs of villagers, liaising with multiple agencies and the arduous task of sifting through terms and conditions, reviewing timelines, and considering many idiosyncrasies; a huge undertaking with financial and legal responsibilities and effectively a full-time effort for ‘leading light’ Matthew. 

In March 2020, new telegraph poles and fibre cabling arrived and following COVID lockdown, activity in the village ramped up again in June. 

By December 7, 2020, all residents with a voucher had ordered their new full fibre broadband service and properties started to be connected. 

Matthew says he wants to ‘thank all the volunteers in the community who have helped to achieved this’. 

Local resident and business owner, Edward Jacobs said: “The immediate future will bring a community celebration! The network will boost not only broadband speed, but also the re-sale value of local properties.” 

CDS have now tendered a contract which covers much of East Devon.  A spring announcement by CDS will determine which communities will be included, and which will be left free to launch their own community led programme. 

This local community project has undoubtedly been a huge success for the residents of Whitford! 

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