The long wait for rural broadband

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An exciting press release landed in my inbox this week: "Superfast Broadband One Step Closer For Thousands More Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire Homes and Businesses." This new technology could do for Buckinghamshire "what the railways did for the Victorians", promised the council leader quoted within.

The two counties are the latest to announce how they'll spend their share of the £530m superfast rural broadband fund that the government announced back in 2010.

But behind the excitable press release, there's growing dismay about the whole process of delivering fast broadband to rural areas, with the word "shambles" making a frequent appearance. People in areas promised a share of the superfast future are growing impatient with the lack of progress.

Peter Green, who lives in the community of Eggesford in Devon, is typical.

He got in touch to tell me of the frustrations of trying to run a holiday cottage business on a 500Kbps broadband connection - "We tried to upload videos but it was pointless" - and his fruitless efforts to find out just when the Connecting Devon and Somerset organisation might take his village into the 21st Century. A contract with BT was signed earlier this year, but he's still no clearer as to when or if that will help him.

Here's the charge sheet against the government's efforts:

  • Promises about timetables for delivering faster connections have not been met
  • A process supposed to deliver competition now looks certain to end up with one company, BT, scooping up the entire cash pile
  • The whole process has been a bureaucratic and costly nightmare that has annoyed everyone involved.

You can see why rural broadband campaigners might be confused about the government's timetable. Back in 2009, the Labour government promised that everyone would get a minimum 2Mbps by 2012. But when the coalition government arrived, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that wasn't good enough.

Start Quote

16 out of the 41 designated areas have yet to appoint a contractor”

End Quote

He scrapped the 2012 target, and instead promised that Britain would have the best superfast broadband network in Europe - by 2015. What the market could not deliver - the final third of the country - would be hooked up thanks to that £530m fund from the licence fee, to be administered by a body called BDUK.

But, as Mr Green in Devon and many others elsewhere have found, that timetable has now slipped. The process of putting each county's service out to tender has been painfully slow - 16 out of the 41 designated areas have yet to appoint a contractor - and many of the projects won't be completed until 2016.

Whose fault is this? BDUK? The councils? BT? They all point the finger at the EU for investigating whether the government cash constituted state aid, but you might ask whether that could not have been foreseen.

There also seems to have been far too much complexity in the bidding process. When I contacted Keri Denton, the Devon County Council executive who runs Connecting Devon and Somerset, she insisted that everything was now on schedule since the contract with BT was signed in January. Work on planning the rollout was in full swing, examining every duct, lifting every manhole, to calculate how far the fast network would stretch.

I wasn't clear why some of that work could not have begun back in 2010 when the government funding was first announced, but she insisted that wasn't possible while the procurement process was ongoing. "We would share that frustration," she said when I told her how painful it all looked to those waiting for the network. But she maintained that the end result would be a "damned good deal" for the councils, and for residents.

Mug with "Superfast Cornwall"

BT, not surprisingly, agrees with that. The company insists that Britain is still on track to hit that 2015 target of the best superfast broadband in Europe - even if many of the rural projects won't be complete by then. Bill Murphy, the man running the operation, says there were other firms competing for some of the contracts in the early stages but "they all found it very difficult to make a case".

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We've been waiting years to get anything more than 500k”

End Quote Peter Green of Devon

When I put it to him that it might have been better and faster to have central government just hand the whole thing to BT from the start, with tight regulation, he disagreed. "It is a long process, it does cost money to procure things locally, but the fact of the matter is that the only way you're going to get local buy-in is to do it locally."

It is the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which is getting most of the blame. It always looked strange that a department with little experience in this field should be in charge of such a major infrastructure project. Now it seems the Treasury agrees - a report on government infrastructure projects by the Commercial Secretary Lord Deighton is thought to be critical of BDUK, recommending a shake-up.

Even Maria Miller, the current Culture Secretary, seems keen to distance herself from the work of her predecessor in this area. I understand that she feels now is the time, as the procurement process nears its conclusion, to bring in some more commercial expertise to BDUK, rather than leaving the civil servants in charge.

In the meantime, Mr Green is still waiting to hear when his village will move out of the slow lane. "We've been waiting years to get anything more than 500k and there's a total lack of information." He points out that council taxpayers are also contributing to the scheme to the tune of more than £20m. "It's a lot of money locally and we should be seeing something from it. We hear that broadband speeds are going up nationally but that's in the towns. In the rural areas we are stuck where we are."

Later this week there should be more news, both nationally and locally, on the progress of the superfast broadband project. But that ambition of showing the rest of Europe how to do it by 2015 now looks more challenging than ever.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The only way to get BB speeds up is for the government to force providers to only charge per mbit and stop the robbery known as "up to" charging!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It should be a condition of a telecoms licence that they give 100% coverage, problem solved, of course the government would have to expect lower returns so they will continue to let the rest of the country to subsidise the big city’s

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    4G will be the saving of all those country bumpkins.... if anyone can persuade the networks to improve their rural coverage. Oh hang on, free market forces again, there is no business out in the boonies so why should they put a mast up ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Classic example of 'The Free Market' There isnt enough business in those areas so why is any company going to invest in putting in infrastructure ? So what'll happen is the tax payer will fund it and businesses like BT, Sky et al will get the benefit. And thats wrong why am I paying to increase the profits of BT or Virgin or Sky aswell as affect the eyesight of young boys in rural Britain

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    In a small village miles from an ancient BT/OpenReach exchange, we recently went overnight from an unreliable 1.5Mbps to 1Gbps - with a local community-organised fibre-optic network. We were the 100th home online. You covered the story yourself: They applied for part of the government funding, and were turned down (why?!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I fear that some should think before replying, 5 Mbps is very fast to most rural communities. Plus, when most people chose to live a rural life, broadband was not thought of and telephones were excellent for communication. Our exchange doesn't even have 21CN equipment yet so not even ADSL2+, we're stuck with ADSL Max at less than 2 Mbps. It's not even in the plans for fibre in the next 5 years!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I'm 2 1/2 miles from my main exchange, not a sub station, a main exchange. However I'm rural even though I can see the exchange from my house because I live 3/4 of a mile from the last estate where the junction boxes are. Engineers have told me that hell will freeze over before fibre optics reach me. I may see an uprated speed to 2.5 mbps if I'm lucky, otherwise 1.3 is for me!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Infrastructure money would be better spent on SuperFast Broadband rather than HS2. I like what eStonia have done, some with EU development cash

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I seem to recall a few months ago a story about a rural community who rolled their sleeves up and constructed their own broadband connection - an excellent example of a community looking after itself in the face of government indolence, indifference and neglect of its obligations. So don't whine, get up and do something for yourselves!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    There are areas in the centre of built-up areas which are also falling behind such as the Barbican near the City of London.

    I do have sympathy for the rural businesses who need faster connections, but those who work in cities and decide to live out in the country, I have absoultely no sympathy for, since it is their life-style choice. And it is these people who should foot the bill for others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    8. doug - we have sympathy with you. When the power goes off to us (3-4x a month) we have no water either as it's pumped to our 1150ft altitude! The phone lines are fuzzy, especially after it rains and, in BT's words we are 'at the end of the wire' so there's nothing they will do. By the time super-fast fibreoptic is here I'll be too old to use it even if the lights are on to see it!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    In my Leicestershire village, things are ok now, but 7 or 8 years ago I would have snapped your hand off for a reliable electricity connection; there was at least 4 power cuts a week every week for nearly 2 years. Not just 30 second outages 2-3 hours at a time. At least the water was only disconnected twice a week. It's amazing how far behind some parts of the country are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Yipee...won't hold my breath. Still waiting for a reliable broadband connection greater than 0.2mbps, let alone a 'fast' broadband connection which, for us, would be 1mbps!! Mind you, we only get a bus on a Wednesday....!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Buckinghamshire? I'm in rural Scotland, the chances of any kind of reliable broadband are as remote as we are from London.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Look forward for further corruption and gouging, as contractors suck £Millions out of the public purse, sending this endeavour well over budget, as all government schemes do.

    Proof? The exact same phenomenon is happening in Australia, on an colossal scale:

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    There is no doubt whatever this is the real infrastructure required for this century. Not HS2 Victorian tech hugely energy wasteful to gain a few mph moving people between two points at vast fares. Universal high speed broadband should be got on with now, and it will spread work all over the country not in one line like HS2. No excuses, get in with it, divert HS2 money and the foreign aid budget.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Market forces after telecoms privatisation were going to recable the country according to Thatcher, it hasn't happened, now the government has to step in with taxpayers money to provide it instead. Meanwhile Vodafone etc. who don't seem to pay any tax will reap the benefit in providing services using the infrastructure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Rural Broadband, what a laugh. I live 0.5 miles from a city centre and I only get 5mbps.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Stop moaning they are spending 32Bn on a superfast white elephant to run between London and the north what else do you want?


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