MPs Say BDUK Has Given BT A Rural Broadband Monopoly

Northern Fells Cumbria, © Bobble Hat at the English language Wikipedia

Public Accounts Committee say DCMS and BT must be more transparent and publish detailed BDUK mapping

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme has effectively handed BT a superfast broadband monopoly in rural areas, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has called on BT and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to be more transparent about planned coverage and costs.

Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the PAC, has demanded that the DCMS and BT publish detailed maps of their implementation plans and allow local authorities to share information about their rollouts  -something she says they are contractually prevented from doing.

“The Government has failed to deliver meaningful competition in the procurement of its £1.2 billion rural broadband programme, leaving BT effectively in a monopoly position,” she said. “Since our hearing in July last year, when 26 of the 44 contracts to deliver this were with BT, all remaining contracts have now also gone to BT.

BT rural broadband monopoly

rural broadband 1“Despite our warnings last September, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has allowed poor cost transparency and the lack of detailed broadband rollout plans to create conditions whereby alternative suppliers may be crowded out.”

Hodge said BT’s further concessions had not positively impacted rural communities, and information is being witheld. Cumbria County Council was unable to release sufficiently detailed information although the DCMS thought the council was able to publish such data, she said.

“Local authorities are still contractually prevented from sharing information to see if they are securing best terms for the public money they spend,” Hodge continued. “Communities can still not access the detailed data they need to understand whether they will be covered by BT’s scheme in their area. Other broadband providers might be squeezed out of the rural market by BT’s actions.

“BT’s monopoly position should have been a red flag for the Department. But we see the lack of transparency on costs and BT’s insistence on non-disclosure agreements as symptomatic of BT’s exploiting its monopoly position to the detriment of the taxpayer, local authorities and those seeking to access high speed broadband in rural areas.”

Local authorities restricted

The PAC has called on DCMS to work “urgently” with all local authorities to publish detailed mapping information down to full postcode level and should include the speed of service as soon as possible. The committee has just published its 50th report on the issue of rural broadband and said if it was disappointed with the government’s response to its latest publication, it would require another hearing.

“The Department should collect, analyse and publish data on deployment costs in the current programme, to inform its consideration of bids from suppliers under the next round of funding,” said Hodge. “And before that next round of funding is released, the Department should work with local authorities to ensure there is real competition and value for money.”

BT Openreach, whose outgoing CEO Liv Garfield has previously expressed her frustration at the ongoing criticisms of BDUK, told TechWeekEurope that the PAC was nitpicking and that the rollout was actually going well.

BT objections

splayfoil road fibre cabinet“We respect the role of the committee but we feel their criticism of BT is inaccurate and unjustified,” said a spokesperson. “BT was the only company willing to accept the challenging terms on offer and make a significant investment in rural areas. This was at a time when others walked away when they realised easy pickings weren’t to be had. Claims that BT is a ‘monopoly’ are simply inaccurate given more than 100 ISPs are offering fibre across BT’s open network.”

The company also added that the National Audit Office (NAO), which has also been critical of BDUK, had acknowledged there was a “robust” process in place to ensure that BT was delivering value for money and said DCMS and BDUK had “full sight” of the firm’s costs. Furthermore, BT claimed that its solution was cheaper than its competitors and that it doesn’t get paid until it submits detailed invoices showing the costs incurred.

BT also objected to the PAC’s claim that local authorities were unable to publish rollout data: “As for maps, most councils have published coverage maps with our support. More detailed data will be released by them in due course once surveys have been completed and we know for sure that we are going to an area.”

The government is aiming to bring superfast broadband to 95 percent of the UK population by 2017 and has announced details of a further £250 million to be distributed to local authorities to extend coverage to areas not covered by commercial roll-outs or BDUK, which has already brought superfast broadband to more than 300,000 properties.

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