The county of Northumberland has more than 323,000 residents. It is the sixth most sparsely populated local authority area in England, with 97% of the region classed as rural.
For the UK’s rural counties, delivering high speed, fibre-enabled broadband is a complex logistical, technical, and financial challenge. Until recently, Northumberland County Council was no exception. As of May 2022, county-wide broadband connectivity lagged behind the rest of the UK by 5%, with this disparity predicted to grow to 33% by 2025/26*. The pandemic brought the issue into sharp focus. Schools struggled to deliver online learning on connections of just 10MB. Remote working put unprecedented pressure on existing networks, in turn preventing residents from accessing other essential online services and support.
Northumberland County Council had a bold vision to change this, and a time sensitive opportunity stimulated by the need to upgrade its own end-of-life WAN infrastructure. But available funding was stretched, and previous central government initiatives had yielded limited results. The council needed an innovative approach to planning, financing, and future-proofing its ambitions to make Northumberland one of the best-connected regions of the UK and drive social value for all.
In today’s digital world, high-speed broadband facilitates essential access to education, employment, services, support, and community inclusion. Northumberland County Council’s Corporate Plan (2023 to 2026) recognises this. A key aim is to create “A Connected County” by ensuring that 97% of residents have access to Gigabit fibre by 2027. Standard procurement frameworks offer no provision for regional networks, so the council needed to attract additional investment. In Scotland, there are two examples of councils “seeding” an extended network capacity from existing regional infrastructure, by attracting private investment. But, for Northumberland County Council, this would be a totally new approach. They needed help to build, test, and evaluate the business case, procure and contract supplier investment and services, and ensure a sustainable commitment to delivering social value. Plus, with the council’s existing WAN contract coming to end of life – and no option to renew – deadlines were tight. So, the council asked Mason Advisory to support the business case and procurement to transform a standard WAN upgrade into a pioneering initiative to drive social value across the region.
The council engaged a team of Mason Advisory consultants to support the delivery of three key objectives:
- Identifying whether securing private-sector investment for the full fibre network was a valid proposition.
- Procuring a new WAN contract for council sites.
- Ensuring that the social value element of the procurement would deliver regional high-speed fibre for residents and businesses.
We undertook an early supplier engagement exercise to explore, in principle, whether suppliers would consider the investment opportunity, and to what extent they would embrace the project’s social value aims. Having confirmed a picture of market appetite across a range of suppliers, we then worked with the council to compile the contractual framework and business case.
The first step was a discovery exercise with council stakeholders. As well as capturing the council’s own WAN upgrade requirements, we also helped them to focus a strategic lens on the social value objectives of the wider full fibre rollout. We helped them to define these objectives within three main themes: eliminating digital poverty, promoting digital skills and confidence, and tackling connectivity exclusion amongst residents. We built these themes into a compelling and fully evidenced proposition for supplier investment. We also used them as the bedrock for evaluating tender responses, since the project’s success would depend on the supplier’s long-term capacity and commitment to achieving meaningful social value as well as future-proofed connectivity infrastructure.
We then tackled the challenge of building a contractual model that would attract investment while ensuring value for money. The solution was to create a 20-year framework – an unusual proposition, given that most service contracts run for five years maximum. The rationale was to incentivise suppliers by offering a contract term long enough generate a beneficial return on their investment. But, given the lengthy time scale, it was also important to future-proof the contractual framework. So, we built in specific safeguards around (amongst others) pricing, future technology refreshes, highly flexible change services, and guaranteed economies of scale as demand increases.
We fully supported our client through the procurement process, working especially closely with the council’s CIO and Director of IT. We facilitated a Competitive Dialogue process to drive meaningful negotiation between suppliers and the council. We designed, tested, and applied rigorous evaluation criteria to ensure that, as well as offering the right technical solutions, suppliers were also committed to delivering the social value objectives – especially during the first five years. Crucially, the value and duration of the contract demanded full council approval. So, we also built a comprehensive business case to provide assurance across the project’s value, options, costs versus benefits, and risks, enabling councillors to sanction the proposed approach with confidence.
The contract has now been awarded and has secured GBP114 million of privately funded investment across the region. A contractual commitment is in place to connect at least 120,000 homes to Gigabit broadband, at an average cost of just GBP30 per property.
The contract includes obligations to maintain competitive broadband at below market rates for businesses and residents. It also stipulates that infrastructure must be made available to other providers to promote in-region competition and facilitate additional services including mobile 5G. Schools have already been moved onto Gigabit connectivity to support blended learning, while bandwidth over-provision is guaranteed across all 146 council sites to ensure uptime of vital services and support the council’s own WAN upgrade. The supplier has additionally committed to tackling digital poverty by funding dedicated professional roles, providing connectivity for 86 village halls (free for the first year) and developing a social housing tariff for high-speed internet access.
Northumberland County Council has taken a bold procurement approach, which has transformed a council-only WAN upgrade into a region-wide, major social value initiative. We are delighted to have helped the council realise its vision, which has set Northumberland on a secure path to becoming one of the best-connected rural regions in the UK.
*Source: BT Openreach, UK Government National Infrastructure Strategy, DCMS Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, 2022
“The team has been incredibly helpful over the last year, developing a good understanding of our infrastructure, our challenges, and our vision. They were unbelievably flexible, offering up support to help overcome barriers and meet demanding timescales. Mason Advisory provided credible and flexible support and expert advice allowing us to deliver value at pace. They have been an invaluable partner to Northumberland Council IT/ Digital.”
Chris Thompson, Director of IT, Northumberland County Council
To find out more about our award winning project, read the interview with Northumberland County Council and The Times newspaper here (page 7)