Lobby Group Slams Rural Broadband Rollout Hitch


The Countryside Alliance has hit out at the lack of progress made in rolling out rural broadband

The Countryside Alliance has warned of the growing digital divide after it said that there had been a “underwhelming” amount of progress rolling out superfast broadband in rural areas.

The Alliance made a freedom of information request to each of the four areas that were named by the government last year as launching pilot superfast broadband services, including the Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire.

Underwhelming Results

“They were billed as ‘models for how the public and private sectors should collaborate to build high-speed broadband networks in rural Britain’,” said the Alliance. “We asked how much each had received from the government and what they had done in the past year to deliver their rural broadband network.”

“Unsurprisingly the results are very underwhelming, with a couple of the councils not having spent a penny and the others just moving towards finding local suppliers to get working on a process of getting the projects started,” it said.

Earlier this week, BT’s boss admitted that it would take up to six years to rollout fibre-based broadband services to 90 percent of the country.

Funding Gap

Meanwhile the Countryside Alliance believes that the Government is talking a great game about rural broadband, but it is not delivering.

This is mostly down to the fact that in reality, the Government is actually putting a relatively small sum of money (£530m) into the national rollout of fibre in the UK, via Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). Indeed, all of this money has already been allocated to various regions.

But this Government money is dwarfed by BT’s pledge to invest £2.5 billion to roll out fibre-based broadband to only two thirds of UK premises by the end of 2015.

And while companies such as BT, Cable & Wireless and Fujitsu believe they can utilise the £530m BDUK funding to extend the fibre reach to 90 percent of the country, this remains to be seen. This is because the BDUK funding is supposed to used in conjunction with other unspecified “local funding schemes”, which leaves many to wonder where this supposed extra funding is to found.

Specificially under existing BDUK guidelines, local authorities are placed in charge of leading broadband roll-out in their area, as well as drawing up a delivery plan, and matching the government’s investment with local, European, or private funds. Many are wondering where this is going to come from in these straightened times and in November Geo UK became so disillusioned with BDUK that it withdrew completely from bidding.

Slow Pioneers

This feeling is backed up by the Countryside Alliance, which is arguing that the first four superfast rural broadband areas, supposedly the pioneers, are still nowhere arriving since being named by the Government over a year ago. It admitted however that the Government should be commended for finding the BDUK money and highlighting its commitment to rural broadband.

“But they then seem to be leaving the councils high and dry with no idea of how to get the projects moving,” the Alliance warned. “For rural people still struggling with no or an unreliable internet connection, this is simply not good enough.”

“The Countryside Alliance has frequently praised this Government’s commitment to improving rural broadband coverage and the funds they have put aside for councils are very welcome,” said Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance. “However, as the responses from the pilot councils show, local authorities are struggling to turn Whitehall’s promises into reality.”

“It has been over a year since these pilots were set up and the people who live in areas with no or unreliable broadband coverage haven’t seen any improvement,” she said. “Unless more is done to simplify the process of acquiring and implementing rural broadband projects, the digital divide will continue to grow and the money pledged by the Coalition will remain all but worthless.”

Government Response

The government meanwhile responded with previous soundbites on the matter.

A government spokesman told the BBC that all four pilot projects were making good progress, and that ministers are confident that Britain would have Europe’s best broadband network by 2015.

“The money for these projects has been allocated and will be provided to the local authorities when they begin spending on the projects,” a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was quoted as saying by the BBC. “This is standard practice in provision of capital grants.”

The government has previously stated that its goal is to ensure that the majority of UK homes get 25Mbps by 2015, because it believes that superfast broadband  is vital for ‘economic growth’.

However the Government’s reliance on the private sector to finance the bulk of the fibre deployment, coupled with its vague instructions for councils to find “other funding”, means this goal is looking increasingly unrealistic.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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