Hunt to award next BDUK grants on Friday
Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will announce the next round of funding for high speed broadband project funding on Friday, he told the West Sussex broadband summit.
Broadband UK has already earmarked around £40m of the £530m it has this parliament to support four pilot projects to roll-out of high speed broadband access networks in the worst-served areas of Britain.
The next round, for which at least 18 organisations, mainly county councils, are competing, is expected to see four or five more projects announced. Hunt was keen to say that BDUK, the section of the culture department charged with delivering the government’s target of the “best broadband network in Europe by 2015”, would work with the losers to patch the holes in the their proposals so that they too would be eligible for handouts.
Hunt made it clear that communities that want access to high speed broadband need to work through their county councils. “Louise (Goldsmith, leader of the West Sussex County Council) is your new best friend,” he told several delegates.
This risks giving BT, which has pledged to match government funding, the vast majority of the money, if what happened in Lancashire, and appears to have happened in Ewhurst in Surrey is any indication.
In Lancashire the county council withdrew a £750,000 grant from England Rural Development Programme (ERDP) earmarked for a community-led fibre to the premises (FTTP) project to serve about 1000 premises, and rolled it into a £40m county-wide project. It then insisted that any firm that tendered for the project have a turnover of £100m and be capable of building and operating the network county-wide.
In Ewhurst, after BT representations the South-east England Development Agency withdrew at the last minute £180,000 in funding for a mixed fibre to the cabinet and premises project. Ewhurst sources now say that BT’s planned upgrade to its exchange is now slipping behind schedule, and that it wouldn’t in any case give residents the service or reliability promised by their own efforts.
Public sector bodies should be rightly concerned with the risk of using smaller companies to build and operate networks. However, there is a difference between local access networks, which could easily be run owned and run by local interests, and backhaul or core networks, which do require scale and financial strength.
Hunt is on record saying he would like to see a “mixed economy” as far as broadband delivery goes, a sentiment he repeated in Chichester last week. But local governments and funding agencies need to deliver that.