Cumbria Broadband Delayed Again By European Red Tape

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

The superfast broadband rollout in Cumbria is facing yet more delays, blamed on red tape from Brussels

The drawn out saga of the superfast broadband deployment in Cumbria has taken yet another twist, with the ‘Connecting Cumbria’ project reportedly facing delays thanks to European red tape.

According to media reports, the Cumbrian County Council had been hoping for work on the fibre deployment to begin in the spring. However, the council is reportedly still waiting for the European Union to provide its official sign-off on the project.

Long wait for superfast broadband

The deployment of superfast broadband into Cumbria has been a protracted one at best, after funding for the county was initially allocated as far back as 2010.

BT won the Broadband Development UK (BDUK) tender last September. Yet the decision to officially award the contract to BT had to wait until November.

Northern Fells Cumbria, © Bobble Hat at the English language WikipediaBefore that, the Cumbrian County Council had rejected both BT’s and Fujitsu’s initial bids back in June 2012. Following that rejection, Fujitsu withdrew from the BDUK bid in Cumbria altogether, leaving BT as the sole bidder. Fujitsu has since withdrawn from all BDUK projects, raising fresh questions about the competitiveness of the initiative, where BT is the only approved supplier.

And now according to the in-cumbria website, council officers are “frustrated” after having submitted plans to Brussels and answered questions about Connecting Cumbria. They are reportedly waiting for “major project approval” before work on the deployment can begin.

However a Cumbrian County Council spokeperson told TechWeekEurope that despite the European delay, the council still believes it can meet its deadline of supplying superfast broadband to 93 percent of premises within the county by the end of 2015.

“The current situation is that we would have anticipated by now to have had the necessary European approvals,” a council spokesperson said. “As yet we haven’t got the final approval, but  we do not anticipate it will affect the project end date.”

The spokesperson confirmed that a contract with BT has already been signed, and it will go live following the European approvals.

TechWeekEurope understands that two European approvals are needed. The first was the EU individual project which has already been signed off, but a second approval for “major projects” is still outstanding. It is thought this second approval is needed due to the size of the ‘Connecting Cumbria’ project, and the fact that the project is going to one supplier (namely BT).

“The situation as it currently stands is that we don’t have a firm date for this final approval,” said the spokesman. “All our submissions have been made and it is the process of being approved. It is a procedural situation, and we are awaiting the end of the procedure to make the contract live. However we are currently working on the project planning, to make sure the project is delivered on time.”

Red tape?

The BDUK process, which aims to fund superfast broadband in those semi-rural areas in the UK that BT has deemed ‘uneconomic’ for a fully-private effort, has been subject to a lengthy investigation by the European Commission.

There had been concerns the entire BDUK process is not competitive enough, and effectively amounted to “state aid” for BT to rollout superfast broadband in the UK. In December, however, the European Union finally gave its blessing to the BDUK scheme.

And only last week, the European Commission proposed a law that would streamline processes for rolling out high-speed broadband across Europe.

The European draft law would require telecom operators to put mini-ducting into any new and renovated housings, so the buildings can be more easily wired up to superfast broadband, without the need for expensive civil engineering works (i.e. the physical work that goes into laying new infrastructure, such as digging up the road).

It is estimated that civil engineering works account for up to 80 percent of the cost of deploying high-speed broadband networks.

Other proposals would oblige telcos and utility companies to share infrastructure such as ducts, conduits, manholes, cabinets, poles, masts and underground channels on “fair and reasonable” terms.

The European proposal comes amidst planned cuts to the EU’s budget for digital projects, which in February were reduced from €9.2 billion to €1 billion, leaving nothing remaining for broadband.

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