BT Games could mean no plain sailing for South West …

The community initiative behind the biggest single Wi-Fi network in the UK is proposing extending its reach even further across South West England and boosting broadband speeds to boot. But because that’ll put it in competition with BT, which has its own ideas for super-fast broadband in the area, the plans could spell trouble for local businesses.

SWI is a “Community Interest Company” a commercial venture established with the support of three local government associations: Somerset County Council, West Somerset District Council and North Devon District Council. It’s aim is to provide the necessary broadband infrastructure to get individuals, businesses and whole communities online.

“Our mission is to deliver “merchantable quality” broadband to where it is needed,” reads the SWI website1. “We make no guarantees or promises, we do not use lawyers & do not have complex legal agreements, if you are in the South West and you cannot get a decent broadband service from BT then you need to call us.” At the moment SWI’s coverage extends from Bournemouth to Barnstaple, with a 100Mbit/s fibre optic link based between the two at Taunton in Somerset underpinning a wireless service. The current network is based around a more-or-less linear backbone of point-to-point links using the 5.8Ghz spectrum and wireless access points using the 2.4Ghz spectrum.

South West Internet now plans on broadening its reach into a septagon shape by installing seven fibre optic circuits, still centred on Taunton. That’ll not only allow it to increase speeds to 100Mbit/s across the board and improve reliability but also reduce its reliance on expensive commercial masts. One of the community interest company’s proposed fibre optic circuits would connect Taunton to Weymouth and Portland in Dorset.

Now, when it comes to the Olympics, even the most ardent sports fan would be forgiven for not knowing that’s exactly where the 2012 sailing competitions will be held. And because of just that, BT the event’s official “communications partner”2 is pushing the boat out to get it’s own super-fast broadband to Weymouth and Portland during the next couple of years. If business interest in the BT fibre optic broadband is great enough, Dorset County Council hopes the link won’t be severed when the Games are over.

According to Miles Butler, its director of environment: “The support of businesses is crucial in providing a strong business case of Dorset’s potential online demand to influence BT and other communication providers to further invest in our digital infrastructure.” So Dorset County Council is backing BT, while Somerset County Council, West Somerset District Council and North Devon District Council all have a stake in SWI. But David Trickett from the Dorset branch of the Federation of Small Businesses says what really counts is getting his area on the super-fast broadband map.

Most businesses these days rely on the Internet but it is a real barrier to growth for rural Dorset businesses, he told The Dorset ECHO. But the timing of the two ventures could mean these businesses don’t get a lasting solution to their net needs. SWI is now seeking partners to achieve its goals and BT moving into the area it hopes to serve could put investors off.

At the same time, if local companies hold out on a potentially cheaper SWI service coming to town, BT may not see enough interest in its fibre optic link to warrant leaving it open.

In the worse case scenario, that would leave Weymouth and Portland without any next-generation broadband options after 2012.

References

  1. ^ SWI website (www.wdi.co.uk)
  2. ^ the event’s official “communications partner” (www.samknows.com)

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