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 199.

    There are no signs of superfast broadband reaching where I live anytime soon. We've even been told we're not a priority.

    We had Fujitsu and BT competing for the area's contract, with Fujitsu seeming more capable. The council went with BT though and since they seem to have done next to nothing.

    Not that I need superfast broadband yet. Current speeds are poor (

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    ...or if you don't want to club together just get satellite. About £20 per month buys 2mbps (admittedly with 2gbyte per month limit). Just google satellite broadband.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Communities that need hi speed broadband should club together and fit Wi-Max. Don't wait for cables and fibre optics. Madagascar has faster broadband than rural Devon due to Wi-Max.

    Get off your pitch forks and do it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    I live in what is known as rural Cheshire, we get the magnificent speed of 0.8 - 1.3 mbps and have a 'promise' of the end of 2015. In the village around 25% of the work age work from home and 'telecommute' - it is, without shadow of a joke, a joke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Oh, and I moved to West Wales in March from Godalming in Surrey, where BT gave me 76mbps Infinity 2. Having moved my landline and broadband to my new address, I get speeds not much faster than dial-up but I still get billed for Infinity 2 as the accounts department at BT don't understand how I no longer have it after the move?!!! "You must have Infinity? You moved your existing account!".

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    I too live in a remote part of West Wales and am trying to run a business that relies on acceptable broadband speeds. I get 0.4mbps if I'm lucky and that is after I have bonded two seperate BT Broadband connections (at double line rental and double service cost) of about 200kbps each. Even 1mpbs is not going to happen here anytime soon!

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    In my native very rural mid-Wales the internet is for women folk & hysterical girls. Farming men have nothing to do with Face Book or e-mail. They drive tractors, herd sheep, get a bit drunk on Friday.

    Part of refusal is because it is all in English not Welsh. Not bothering too much about school, nil qualifications, having to work on farm from age 12, typing & texting does not come naturally?

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    We seem to have lots of tax payers money for the 3rd world (including India and Pakistan) and billions for HS2 Train link to the north

    But no broadband for many market towns and rual areas in the south west of England.

    Its seems to either always be about the north or south east. The south west ie Devon , Dorset and Cornwall might as well be another country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    If I mention Internet to local bachelor farmer neighbours, back in native mid Wales, they look deeply suspicious and distrustful. No,no, no, we don't want none of that round 'ere! Were quite 'appy livin on tinned food?

    "Tis all filth, says," another neighbour. "Might be alright for London toffs, comin down 'ere to their second 'omes, watchin filth an gettin' drunk?" We is God fearin' folk!

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Here in urban West Yorkshire I'm currently connected at a dazzling 1667 kbps and never get much more than 4500 kbps on a supposedly "up to 8000 kbps" service.

    In so many ways our national infrastructure is rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Little knowledge of geoghraphy is the main problem. In very rural mid-Wales there are only very old overhead telephone lines for internet, and they frequently break or hit by careles farmer with a digger.

    Welsh Assembly announced we would all be connected by Wi-fi. But the hills are so high, the houses so low, transmitter so far away, that did not work. Back to waiting for the postman?

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Pretty much.....
    They've been given targets to meet and targets handed down by people with little knowledge, will always be exploited.
    If they've got to get 90% of the UK onto superfast, it's easier/cheaper to do by upgrading existing BB customers than to start digging up fields and farmland.
    Managers meet their targets and take home a nice bonus. Just like the banks......

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    I still stuggle to understand why government is involved in this at all. The EU were right and this does constitute state aid to private buinesses. Essentially, the tax payer is paying for a project to allow the ISP expand their customer base. BT own all the infrastucture, and will be the main financial beneficiary (unless they kick-back to gvt) when proper broadband is rolled out to rural areas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    I live in a hamlet in East Yorkshire. No streetlights, no pub, no shop, no village hall, but we do have superfast broadband. Yes indeedy, our local ISP installed fibre in 2011 and we get 45Mb p/s, and that's only because I can't see why I need to pay the extra for 100 Mb p/s. It can be done, with a cash injection and a determined ISP,


  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Sounds like a fault on your line (or your turning your router on/off a lot), your ADSL bRAS profile will drop everytime the line senses a fault or loss of connection. This profile controls your speed, when you phone them they reset the profile, but it'll just slide back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    there is no reason to suffer such low speeds wherever you live. You can satellite BB for £50 a month, with 20meg down, 8 meg upload guaranteed, wherever you live, completely independant of a BT line.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Every electricity pylon should carry fibre. Wi-fi on each wouldn't go amiss, either. It could revolutionise agriculture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    The basic problem here is that BT have the monopoly on the wires, so it doesn't matter how hard your ISP tries, if BT are comletely indifferent it's never going to improve. Your article quotes despair at 500kb - here we were lucky to get 70. BT are only interested in the glamour of superfast where it's easy. Where it's difficult their response was "if you don't like it [70kb], we'll take it out".

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Aren't people in the country too busy farming to use the internet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    I'm sure 2mb by 2012 would have been preferable to what is now happening (or not). We are in a town and 'only' get around 2mb, but it's more than ample for us to run our internet-based business, stream movies and for our son to do online gaming.


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