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 39.

    56 Minutes ago
    Broadband in the UK is a complete joke. BT and the government have to take the responsibility for the farce that this is.

    You think so, You need to get yourself onto some of the International forums. You will be suprised how many people in America, that bastion of technology, are still dependant on dial-up let alone any kind of broadband,

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.


    All it takes is someone who is internet savvy to go round and set the computer illiterate up, to maximise Internet speed.
    Or at the very least tell the user what they need to boost performance.

    If only it was that easy. If you live five miles from the nearest exchange, not uncommon in rural areas, no amount of tweaking and Internet savvy is going to overcome the laws of physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Got no choice. Welsh wilderness. Postman comes once a week by donkey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Nobody seems to have mentioned the fact that ADSL is not the same speed both ways. This is a fact of digital life. The comment that holiday cottage videos are too slow to be useful would also apply if the user had a 10Mbps link, as the upstream connection would probably less than 1 Mbps. Such users need to use external hosting, rather than moaning about what is, in fact, their technical ignorance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Forget about BT ever getting their act together in rural Britain. Having delayed and delayed bringing infinity to Bedford it now takes them over a year to get for one cabinet to the next one which is less than 100yds away in an urban area. Rural Britain - do not hold your breath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    6 Minutes ago
    why do farmers, yokels and country bumpkins even need broadband? They survived for thousands of years without it.

    So for that matter did everyone else, So why does anyone need it?

    I would say they need it for the same reasons as you do. Where they live is irrelevant to the need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    30 - assuming you EAT food? Well, we GROW it and we employ people to harvest it for you so you don't have to leave the the town. Internet in the countryside is really helpful in keeping shops timely supplied with what you want to buy. Shops tend to be in towns where you are - you BUY your food from shops but it is GROWN in the countryside. Ask a grown up to take you to the countryside to see.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    It would be cheaper to get proper mobile coverage with 3G or better into rural areas, sorting the non existent coverage too.
    Every village ought to be able to get an internet capable mobile signal with as a statutory right.
    With ever more important things such as VAT returns assuming you have reliable internet it is fast becoming as essential to a business as it once was to have a landline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Its a train wreck waiting to happen... lets hope the national audit office investigates it properly and exposes the farce. Rural communities need government support to get access to the internet for work and social lives and to save government money on health, education and egov, its a no brainer and will also reduce carbon footprints. Far better than a fast train for a few.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    why do farmers, yokels and country bumpkins even need broadband? They survived for thousands of years without it.

    Plus they chose to live in the middle of nowhere, no offence.

    Bit of a non-story IMO

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    We've got Fibre broadband at our exchange. My business is 500 yards from the exchange in a town centre, but we can't get fibre broadband because BT haven't enabled our roadside cabinet for it. They won't say when it will be enabled either. No wonder the UK has no computer industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    No offence intended, but I had to laugh when I read Bucks & Herts - rural?

    Still, if your world is 'Islington BBC', I suppose it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    In our area we are lucky to get even 500kbps- a lot of the time the internet times out due to poor speeds & fluctuations in noise causes disconnections & line sync losses. It is incredibly frustrating seeing adverts on TV for super fast broadband at the fraction of the cost we are paying for a substandard service as BT own our exchanges so we can't get the cheaper pricing & get rubbish speeds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The rural broadband "issue" is a bit of a red herring. I'm a database programmer far from an exchange on a slow connection. I can honestly say there's only been a couple of occasions when I have needed a faster speed. When I first moved I had a dodgy ISDN connection - even that was OK. High speed broadband is for the consumer - HDTV, etc. It's not going to transform the rural economy overnight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Help the real rural businesses and workers get connected and pay for it by charging extra to all those city workers who decide to live out in the sticks. As they often take away housing from real rural workers by putting up prices and often rarely use local busineses/pubs (even bringing their groceries from the Waitrose near their office in the City) it'll be a rare chance for them to contribute.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    It's clear that government does not have a clue when it comes to the internet. As others have said, they want to spend zillions on HS2, which just moves a few bodies a few miles, when they could invest in broadband which would enable anyone in the UK to have a videoconference with anyone else in the world... with no travelling time. What wasted opportunity!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    You can't have it both ways. If you look on another subject on HYS today, you will see that the majority are moaning about having their e-mails monitored. Ergo, if you haven't got broadband it reduces your chance of being spyed upon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    You know there is a business opportunity here.

    So many homes have bad connections and slow laggy internet.
    Few of us get the internet speeds we pay for.

    All it takes is someone who is internet savvy to go round and set the computer illiterate up, to maximise Internet speed.
    Or at the very least tell the user what they need to boost performance.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Broadband in the UK is a complete joke. BT and the government have to take the responsibility for the farce that this is. They have jointly failed the country in supporting it's nationwide development as a digital economy. It's embarrassing that it's 2013 and half the country is hobbled by crap internet (and it's not just rural - some parts of London have pathetically slow residential broadband).


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