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Green light for rural broadband

December 11th, 2012

Good news at last for internet-impoverished countryside customers – the UK’s state-funded rural roll out has finally been given the green light by Brussels. The EU competition commissioner has approved the initial stages of the plan, despite early concerns that it breached the fair competition rules. All of the current bids have been won by telecoms giant BT – but there’s still a long way to go before all remote rural users get the same type of service as their urban cousins.

Up and running

Councils were prevented from initiating the project until the competition hurdle had been cleared in Europe. Now that has happened, the finances are freed up and planning can begin in earnest to get the country’s broadband network up and running. A rural fund has been set aside to ensure that the more remote parts of the country get an equal slice of the digital pie, and to that end the government has allocated £530million to boost rural broadband. The Government has been clear to point out that not all locations will benefit from preferred technologies like fibre, but instead will be brought online using a “patch work of interconnecting technologies”, mainly satellite broadband.

But BDUK, the organisation set up to oversee the process, has come under attack for being slow to react to both the needs of rural broadband users, and the opportunities now presented for investment in infrastructure. To date, only five council contracts have been approved, so customers in North Yorkshire, Surrey, Lancashire, Wales and Rutland may soon be enjoying comparable download and upload speeds as their urban neighbours. However, other parts of rural England are still stuck in the dial-up dark ages.

The initial idea was that councils would be swamped with bids from independent providers once the money was allocated. However, only BT and Fujitsu have taken the initiative, putting them well ahead of broadband provision rivals across the country. Eventually, even Fujitsu pulled out, leaving BT holding the digital fort and making them the only bidders. The reasoning, many embittered councils felt, was that their demand levels simply weren’t high enough for providers such as Fujitsu. With BT’s basic infrastructure already in place across much of the county, it was inevitable that the biggest provider would also be the primary (and in many cases the only) bidder for contracts.

‘Satisfactory…’

But not everyone was enamoured with BT, and Cumbria council initially rejected BT’s bid. However, as there seems to be little chance that anyone on an independent white steed is going to come riding to the rescue of Cumbrian internet damsels in distress, the BT bid has been re-submitted and accepted, albeit somewhat reluctantly. (The bid was described rather petulantly by a council spokesperson as ‘satisfactory’ – hardly a ringing endorsement…)

BT has also come under fire for inflating prices. A leaked document accused the company of charging more and more for rural broadband cabinets – an accusation the company strenuously denies. The resulting battle, where statistics were used as heavy artillery on both sides, has led to critics of the overall process calling for greater levels of transparency in how the bids are constructed.

They claim that this will enable everyone involved to ascertain whether the costs involved are justified or not, and whether the broadband rollout is actually going according to plan. Whether that transparency really would clarify the issue any more than has already been done is hard to say, but those who still point an accusing finger at BT for malodorous practices won’t be satisfied until that happens.

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