Rural broadband stalled, says Countryside Alliance

Country lane in Somerset
Image caption It is proving to be a long road to getting rural broadband

The Countryside Alliance says plans to bring fast broadband to rural areas have stalled.

The government named four pilot areas last year, but local councils have admitted that they have not yet started work on their broadband projects.

Freedom of information requests were sent to councils in each area.

The responses revealed that none had received any money from the Treasury, chosen a company to build their networks, or started work on them.

In October last year George Osborne named Cumbria, Herefordshire, North Yorkshire and the Highlands and Islands, as pilot areas for rural superfast broadband networks.

The Countryside Alliance says that unless the whole process is simplified, the digital divide will keep growing and the money pledged will be all but worthless.

A government spokesman said all four pilot projects were making good progress, and ministers remained confident that Britain would have Europe's best broadband network by 2015.

"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," said Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.

"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.

In response a spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "The money for these projects has been allocated and will be provided to the local authorities when they begin spending on the projects. This is standard practice in provision of capital grants."

Bids in

Image caption Some of those bidding hope to piggyback on BT's telegraph poles

It is widely acknowledged that fast broadband services are crucial to consumers and businesses to allow them to take full advantage of web content. While rollouts in urban areas develop apace, efforts to get equivalent services in more remote areas have been far more sluggish.

Companies such as BT, Fujitsu and Cable & Wireless have put in bids to build networks in various areas and each council must decide which to choose.

Malcolm Corbett, head of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (Inca) is not sure that councils are up to the task.

"The government has put the job into the hands of councillors who have never done it before," he said.

Many of those bidding to build networks want to use BT's infrastructure rather than build from scratch. BT has agreed to share access to its telegraph poles and underground ducts and recently cut the cost of renting such equipment.

But, according to Mr Corbett, it is has also placed some significant restrictions on how it is used.

In response, a BT spokesman said: "Those communications providers who have taken an active role in the in development of our duct and pole-sharing products are making strong progress and appear to be comfortable with the products."


Image caption The government hopes to have best fibre network in Europe by 2015

The process of bidding is proving costly to both councils and firms bidding to build networks.

In its FOI response Hereford revealed that, so far, it has spent £50,000 on the procurement process while Fujitsu said that it had spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds bidding in different areas.

The Japanese electronics giant revealed to the BBC earlier this month that it had withdrawn entirely from the bidding in the Highlands and Islands because "the sums did not stack up".

Cable and Wireless withdrew from bidding in Cumbria, citing concerns with the process.

And Geo UK, one of the smaller firms involved, has now withdrawn completely from bidding.

The government has set a deadline to be the best for broadband in Europe by 2015 but no-one thinks this is achievable," said Mr Corbett.

A spokesman for DCMS said he "remained confident" that the target would be reached.

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