Rural councils say fibre rollout is on track

Rural councils say fibre rollout is on track

Summary: Despite an attack by the Countryside Alliance on the pace of the UK's rural broadband rollout, councils and development agencies running key pilot schemes say they are on schedule

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The Countryside Alliance has launched a broadside against the government for not properly supporting rural broadband pilot schemes, but the councils and development agencies running those pilots say everything is on track.

The alliance, which campaigns on rural issues, said on Friday that the North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Herefordshire, and Highlands and Islands pilots are "still nowhere over a year since being named by the chancellor".

The group submitted a Freedom of Information request to each local authority in October, and said the results were "underwhelming", showing no one had gone past the procurement stage.

"Local authorities are struggling to turn Whitehall's promises into reality," Countryside Alliance chief Alice Barnard said in a statement. "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."

In a separate statement, alliance policy chief Sarah Lee said the government was "leaving the councils high and dry with no idea of how to get the projects moving".

Pilots 'on schedule'

However, ZDNet UK spoke to the councils and development agencies involved on Friday and found all four reporting that their pilots were on schedule and going well.

All are in the procurement stage at the moment, and North Yorkshire County Council said it expects the service rollout to begin in June 2012. Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which said the process was "running on schedule", said its deployment should begin within a year from now.

"It is currently anticipated that a contract will be awarded around the end of August 2012. The project will be delivered in phases and confirmation of the rollout plan will be known soon after the contract is awarded," a Highlands and Islands Enterprise spokesperson said.

Herefordshire County Council said it expected to award its super-fast broadband contract in spring 2012, with the deployment to follow soon after. "Despite claims made today that plans to bring fast broadband to rural areas have 'stalled', plans for the two counties [Herefordshire and Gloucestershire] are progressing well and are on target," the council said in a statement.

We expect there to be a steady flow of plans being approved and beginning procurement in the coming months.

– DCMS

A spokesperson for Cumbria County Council said that project should have a contract in place in spring 2012, and was also on track.

"The reality is that addressing the historical lack of super-fast broadband provision for an area like Cumbria will take time and effort, so despite some expectations it does not happen overnight," the spokesperson said. "Multimillion-pound EU procurement exercises, which we have significant experience of dealing with, take time, and need to be done well as we are dealing with taxpayers' money."

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) also said things were on track, and denied leaving the councils and development agencies high and dry.

"Lessons have been learnt from the pilots as they have developed their plans and this has informed how we help roll out broadband in other areas," a DCMS spokesperson said. "We have now allocated funding for each county in England and the devolved nations and are working with them to develop broadband plans.

"We expect there to be a steady flow of plans being approved and beginning procurement in the coming months," the DCMS spokesperson added.

Funds not released

Responding to these reports of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) process going as planned rather than being delayed, a Countryside Alliance spokesperson said the councils and development agencies "may say it's going swimmingly but a lot of this money hasn't been released yet".

"A lot of our members are saying, 'Where is it? Let's have a schedule [of] when people on the ground can expect this in their house'," the spokesperson said.

According to John Moore, the head of finance and central services at North Yorkshire County Council, the procurement process would be moving more swiftly if it were not for regulations.

"I agree in principle that progress is frustrating [but] county councils did not invent the procurement, telecoms and European state aid regulations," Moore told ZDNet UK. "We couldn't for example just ring BT up and say 'by the way, the government has given us £17m, can you start next week?' The regulations simply do not allow that to happen."

"I recognise the frustration with the regulations but to be fair the BDUK guys have been excellent with us," Moore said. "I might be critical of the government's regulations and their approach to state aid [though]. I can't get European money into North Yorkshire without the London civil servants agreeing a particular interpretation of 'state aid' that we've already agreed with Brussels."

Malcolm Corbett, the chief executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA), said it was more important to get rural broadband right than to get it rolled out as quickly as possible.

"At the moment, a lot of the [smaller ISPs] are concerned that the landscape favours BT too much," Corbett said. "Fixing some of those concerns does take time. For example, with passive infrastructure... Ofcom is taking a few months to decide policy on this.

"This is a critical national infrastructure which is going to last us well into the future and we really need to get it right. We don't want to find ourselves in five years' time having done half the job and having to spend more."


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Topics: Broadband, Networking

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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4 comments
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  • Oh dear, OFCOM is involved.
    Guaranteed recipe for failure.
    anonymous
  • I live in Worcester and we're still on Semaphore and smoke signals here.

    I'd love to sign up to a provider, but we are limited to traditional ADSL only. BT Infinity is supposedly available to the exchange, but the local infrastructure will not allow the faster speeds - I'd be paying extra for absolutely nothing.

    The irony is that there is an old, now disused BT exhchange (large offices) in the City Centre lying completely empty. Once Worcester was a key hub for the phone network but now lays forgotten. I even think that the powers that be at BT forgot they still own the building!

    As for other providers, no-chance. We have no cable network here, so we lack choice.

    And we're supposedly a 'city'! According to BT we're not. I might invite their reps for a tour around the cathedral...
    anonymous
  • Re: Matthew Bennett,

    Similar thing in Ludlow here - BT don't give a damn about their customers. The only thing they care about is getting customers back who had the choice of switching to Virgin 'cos they're losing out with people who had enough of such an incompetent company, however everywhere where Virgin isn't BT have the monopoly on the phone lines and ducts, so all the other phone providers have to pay BT for the rights.

    BT should be broken up into separate companies and rivals should be allowed into their ducts to install fibre optics instead of having BT mess around, they are so incompetent.

    It's funny 'cos I keep seeing the advert on TV for BT Vision and BT Infinity - neither of which we can actually get round here due to inadequate phone lines (we can barely watch iPlayer never mind using it for BT Vision!). BT's phone line network is worse than the railways were when Railtrack used to own them.

    And as for other companies trying to pedal these useless "satellite" broadband connections or "TV signal" broadband connections, they need to give up on those technologies now, unless they can find a way of cutting the costs. The costs are way to much for so little extra speed in comparison to when fibre eventually does become available - with those technologies it's over £100 per month for 2 years for only 8mbps and a limit on data - WOW - I used to live in Warrington and it was £25 per month from Virgin for 50Mbps with unlimited usage - so Satellite and TV signal broadbands are just stupidly over-priced, the only good thing with them is that it's worth having a VOIP phone (like Vonage) 'cos then you don't need to pay BT line rental for a phone line that isn't used.
    anonymous
  • Perhaps for a more proactive approach look here:-

    https://sites.google.com/site/b4rnftthbroadbandruralnorth/news/latest-news

    Their launch event will be held on 15th December at The Storey Institute, Lancaster at 2pm. More details are available from info@b4rn.org.uk
    Surrey Hills