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Rural Broadband Questions, As Two Altnet Schemes Lose Council Support

Support for alternative rural broadband projects has been dropped by two English councils, raising more concerns

On by Tom Jowitt 0

Rural broadband concerns have once again been raised after support for two alternative projects was reportedly dropped by two English County Councils.

The decision comes amid criticism of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme.

No Room For Altnets?

Following the decisions by Oxfordshire County Council, and Dorset County Council to award their respective BDUK contracts to BT, Council  support for two alternative schemes in those areas has been apparently been dropped, according to the BBC.

Fibre, network, broadband © Datskevich Aleh Shutterstock 2012That report said that a rural broadband group planning to offer superfast net services in Oxfordshire has been told by the Council that the project will not get its support. And a similar project in Dorset was also apparently turned down last month.

There is little doubt that alternative network providers (AltNets) have had issues with the BDUK process, as all BDUK contracts in England and Wales have been awarded to the telecoms incumbent BT. Geo Networks has previously lambasted the process in 2011. But some  AltNets have gone live, such as the B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) project in Lancashire.

Meanwhile local broadband groups had been encouraged to bid for a separate pot of money, known as the Rural Broadband Community fund, to get superfast broadband into the really difficult areas of the UK. But TechweekEurope understands that this fund has been bogged down with bureaucratic issues for over a year now, and a meeting is due soon with the culture secretary Maria Miller.

The Cotswolds Broadband scheme aims to provide fibre-to-the-home services to 5,000 premises in West Oxfordshire. But it told TechweekEurope that Oxfordshire County Council had dropped its support for them. That said, it is still working with the District and the County Council and is now looking at wireless and infill options instead.

“Oxfordshire County Council has supported this all along but has now decided it is not going to separate it from their contracted plans with BT,” Hugo Pickering, head of Cotswolds Broadband, was quoted as saying by the BBC.

A similar scheme in Dorset, thought to be the Trailway scheme, is also understood to have hit the same problem.

In cases where preparatory work has been done before the council draws back, it’s possible the community networks could pursue compensation claims.

AltNet Anger

And there was anger too from an industry group representing AltNets.

“Members of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA) were shocked to learn that two key projects, due to be funded under the Rural Community Broadband Fund, have been rejected by their local authorities despite receiving strong support from the Secretary of State. Maria Miller made it clear that she thought these and other RCBF community projects should be given the chance to go ahead,” said INCA in a statement.

“The projects, Cotswolds Broadband in Oxfordshire and Trailways in Dorset, were both in attendance at a meeting involving INCA with the Minister in July. These schemes, in line with many others, aim to deliver future-proofed fibre to the home and wireless services to thousands of rural households for around 34 percent state subsidy. This contrasts with BT’s demand for nearly 90 percent state aid in similar areas with a focus on its less future-proofed FTTC offering.”

“It was precisely these sorts of schemes that the £20m RCBF fund was set up to support,” said INCA. “The current state of affairs is becoming increasingly untenable. INCA’s members large and small have voiced their concerns for two years, predicting that the BDUK framework would end up being very small indeed. The National Audit Office and Public Accounts committee expressed severe concerns about lack of transparency concerning BT’s costings, BT’s deployment plans and whether value for money can be achieved,” said INCA. “BT, despite its protestations to the Public Accounts Committee, continues to claim commercial confidentiality and prevent publication of detailed information about where it plans to go with its £1.2bn and where it won’t go. Alternative providers and local communities are frustrated by the secrecy.”

“BT are a very important part of the broadband infrastructure picture, but they are not the only game in town, nor are they always the most cost effective. Government really needs to send a very strong signal in favour of a competitive environment or the altnets, their investors and local communities will draw the obvious conclusion and seek other ways to fight for the right to compete fairly,” concluded INCA.

Frustrated BT?

There is an increasingly heated atmosphere surrounding the BDUK process in the UK. The National Audit Office (NAO) said the BDUK scheme is not providing value for money and is running 22 months behind schedule. MPs have also accused BT of effectively blackmailing the general public, after BT said it would only go into rural areas where it did not have commercial reasons for doing so, only if it received taxpayers’, or government, funding.

But BT is not taking these accusations lying down.

This week Openreach CEO Liv Garfield admitted it was “massively frustrating” to have to constantly defend BT’s involvement with the BDUK programme. Garfield claimed the government-funded initiative is beginning to bear fruit for those on slow broadband connections.

“There have been lots of claims in the papers over the last few months about whether the UK is as far ahead or if BDUK is on schedule,” said Garfield this week. “I think you know our view is that it has been massively frustrating to have a programme going this well and still having to counter negative press.

“I think the stats show they are not true. There’s work underway in 35 areas and we’re ahead of schedule in terms of the amounts of homes and cabinet passed at this stage in the UK. Already there are people enjoying access to fibre and changing their lives in 13 BDUK areas. I’m sure if you’re one of those people, it feels like a game changer.”

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Tom Jowitt
Author: Tom Jowitt
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