N Yorkshire gets its fibre while others wait, because the deal got early EU approval
BT has secured another Broadband Development UK (BDUK) contract, but unlike other deals, this one can start immediately as North Yorkshire’s county council has already gained state aid approval from Brussels.
The British telecoms giant has won all of the BDUK money handed out by local councils thus far, including Lancashire and Rutland, but any move to actually light up fibre has been stalled thanks to an investigation by the European Commission.
The European Commission confirmed to TechWeekEurope last week it had opened an investigation into BDUK, after concerns were raised the process was not competitive enough, as many could not offer what giants such as BT and Fujitsu could without more government assistance.
Andrew Barron, the chief operating officer of Virgin Media, complained in May that the government was effectively subsidising BT via the BDUK process. Yet in June, BT and Fujitsu signed a Framework Agreement with the government, designed to offer councils a quick way of getting through the procurement process, but only allowing them to hand contracts to those two vendors. If councils want to use other providers, they have to set up their own procurement process and hope the government will back it with BDUK funds.
North Yorkshire County Council told TechWeekEurope it had no issues from Brussels as it had gained state aid approval before the EC had started scrutinising BDUK, the government-backed fund which will pump £530 million into local authorities so they can take superfast broadband into remote areas.
BT said the project will see 90 per cent of North Yorkshire homes and businesses, amounting to some 365,000 premises, able to access broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps by the end of 2014. Ultra-fast speeds of up to 330Mbps will also be available in some areas where Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) will be deployed. The final 10 percent will also see some uplift and should get at least up to 2Mbps.
The council is taking advantage of its £17.8 million share of BDUK funds for the project, as well as another £10 million from BT. The ISP said it had already spent around £23 million on deploying fibre broadband in North Yorkshire and expects to add another £11 million to that soon.
“BT will be delighted to get our contract, as it gives them something to do,” said John Moore, corporate director for finance and central services at North Yorkshire County Council. “The view we have taken is a pragmatic one… if we didn’t use someone like BT or Fujitsu, it wasn’t ever going to happen.
“We’ve been trying to do something like this for 10 years. We found getting our state aid tedious, but we got it.” Moore said he did not think those councils applying for state aid approval from the EC now would have much chance, now that the body is properly investigating the process. “I think the system has probably caught up with them,” he added. “Trying to get state aid now is probably going to be quite difficult.”
The process in North Yorkshire took two years, until the competition was whittled down to BT and Fujitsu. A number of other tech giants showed interest in the contract, including Thales and Cable and Wireless, the council confirmed.
BT was chosen largely because it was able to offer better coverage than Fujitsu, according to Moore.
“We said to the companies ‘there is a map of North Yorkshire, this is how much money we have to spend, how much can you cover?'” Moore said. “Some of the numbers may not sound impressive by central London standards… but to get 20Mbps or above is a massive leap forward.”
A planning process will now take place to decide which parts of North Yorkshire will be hooked up to fibre connections. This will take around three months and Moore believes BT will start installing the infrastructure in October, with customers in the initial areas signing up by November. Most of the contract will be done by 2014, he claimed.
“It’s an ambitious project which will bring huge benefits to homes and businesses across the county,” said communications minister Ed Vaizey.
BT is also expected to win another BDUK contract in Cumbria, as the only competing bidder, Fujitsu, pulled out. However, the council said it would go back to the drawing board if BT could not deliver what Cumbria needed.
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