BT broadband offer 'risks extending rural monopoly' says government

By Kevin Keane
BBC Scotland's environment correspondent

Image source, BT

An offer by BT to provide broadband infrastructure to 99% of the UK risks extending its monopoly in rural areas, according to the Scottish government.

If accepted, it would mean proposals allowing those living in remote areas to demand broadband were unnecessary.

In a letter to Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, Scottish ministers said the deal put at risk plans to have superfast broadband in all properties.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing suggested a working group be set up.

This would be to consider the proposals and related issues.

About 1.4 million households currently cannot get speeds above 10Mbps, according to Ofcom.

The UK government is consulting on plans for a Universal Service Obligation (USO) which gives homes and businesses in so-called "white areas", where there is no existing infrastructure, the right to request a high-speed connection.

'Hugely negative'

The Scottish government said it had been engaging with potential suppliers who might want to bid for contracts to provide broadband to the so-called "final few".

The Scottish government's R100 programme aims to deliver speeds of up to 30Mbps to all properties in Scotland by 2021.

Mr Ewing's letter said: "The emerging USO proposal risks undermining that engagement by apparently concluding that it will not be commercially viable for any provider other than BT to deliver in white areas.

"What has emerged as a result risks entrenching, even extending, BT's monopoly position in rural areas and could deter alternative suppliers from bidding for R100 contracts.

"That would be a hugely negative outcome and one that would serve to undermine and frustrate the Scottish government's digital ambitions."

Rural campaigners have argued that the higher speed is necessary to future-proof the infrastructure as more people stream TV programmes and use multiple devices.

Mr Ewing added: "It is arguable whether a 10Mbps connection could be defined as a high-speed connection today, let alone in 2020. It will certainly not be high-speed in 2023 or in 2028 when any speed uplift is implemented."

'Safety net'

Speaking last week, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said: "The government is taking action to ensure that people everywhere in the UK can get a decent broadband connection as soon as possible.

"We warmly welcome BT's offer and now will look at whether this or a regulatory approach works better for homes and businesses.

"Whichever of the two approaches we go with in the end, the driving force behind our decision-making will be making sure we get the best deal for consumers."

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