BDUK Gains EU Blessing For Superfast Broadband Rollout

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The EU approves British plans to roll out superfast broadband to rural communities via the BDUK scheme

The European Union has given its blessing to the Broadband Development UK (BDUK) scheme, which seeks to fund the deployment of superfast broadband into rural regions of the nation.

The approval has long been expected, and came over four months after the European Commission confirmed to TechWeekEurope it was investigating the BDUK project “very actively”. That confirmation followed reports that the European Commission was concerned the BDUK scheme amounted to state aid for BT.

BDUK green light

The government has set aside £530m in funding for the BDUK scheme, coupled with an extra £300m from other Whitehall funds. This funding is designed to pay for the deployment of superfast broadband in areas that would not otherwise be covered by BT’s own £2.5bn Infinity fibre deployment, which is going to cover 66 percent of the UK.

The BDUK scheme is being managed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), but there have been concerns it is in effect a one horse race, as BT has won all of the deals under the initiative so far.

A DCMS framework was developed to offer councils a quick way of getting through the procurement process, but only allowed them to hand out contracts to either BT or Fujitsu. If they want to use other providers, they have to set up their own procurement process and hope the government will back it with BDUK funds.

This all prompted the EU to step in and investigate the matter, but approval always seemed likely, as BT is obligated to provide its competitors with open access to its network and infrastructure, effectively nullifying the “state aid” argument.

Direct intervention

“The approval paves the way for the UK’s £530 million rural broadband scheme to start in earnest, meaning that work can commence laying the cables for local authority broadband projects all around the UK,” said the DCMS on its website. “Today’s decision follows a direct intervention from the Culture Secretary in Brussels last week, after several months of delay in Europe.”

Maria Miller Culture Secretary“Finally getting the green light from Brussels will mean a huge boost for the British economy,” added Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. “Superfast broadband is essential to creating growth, jobs and prosperity and the delay has caused frustration within Government.  Today’s announcement means that we can crack on with delivering broadband plans, boosting growth and jobs around the country.

“Britain is in a global race today. To succeed in that race we must have the infrastructure to match our aspiration, providing people who work hard with the tools they need to get on and prosper; this green light will benefit both businesses and communities across the UK.”

Local authorities that have already signed contracts with BT can now press on with their rollouts, whilst others can continue with their procurement processes.

The government expects all the remaining rural broadband projects to complete their procurements by summer 2013.

BT welcomed the news. “We are pleased to hear the European Commission has approved the use of state funds for BDUK projects,” it said. “This decision is very welcome as it will give an important boost to plans to bring fibre broadband to rural parts of the UK. We can now commence work in areas where we have contracts in place and it should also make it easier for those counties who are yet to sign deals with the private sector. It is now full speed ahead.”

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