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Rural councils say fibre rollout is on track

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
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

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.

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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