Government delays Final 10% details; why?
Questions have been raised over the government’s delay in publishing the speed and coverage details of BT’s roll-outs under the £1.8bn BDUK framework procurement of next generation broadband for the country.
Responding a Freedom of Information request, the department of culture, media & sport, the BDUK’s political parent, admitted taking legal advice on the publication of the so-called SCT figures. It refused to disclose the advice, saying it is legally privileged.
BT is the only supplier pitching for state funds under the BDUK framework. Sources close to the department say they believe the legal advice was that a case could be made that the public interest in offering contracts to provide broadband access in areas where BT will not build outweighs BT’s commercial interests.
DCMS confirmed that the details were kept secret under confidentiality clauses in the contract between the local authority and BT. The contract partners each kept the details, and DCMS did not keep ‘the maintained details”, it said.
“As the supplier progresses its roll-out we would expect the deployment data in the SCT to become less commercially sensitive and local bodies will publish details of the roll out,” it said. In other words, once it’s too late to do anything about it.
Publication of these details is crucial for more than 50 applications for funds from the £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund to go forward. Applicants must fit in with the local council/BT roll-out, and BT has an effective veto on council approval of such applications.
Sources with knowledge of the situation say that delays in publishing the SCT details allow BT to adjust its roll-out plan. It can ensure that no competitor will be able to service a contiguous area large enough to be economically viable. This leaves BT free to back-fill its coverage at leisure, or not.
DCMS said “The populated SCT is effectively an initial planning document, which is subject to alteration. Sometimes significant changes are made to it during delivery and its use by another commercial organisation or the general public could carry significant risk.”
It is unclear who carries the risk. Indeed it is hard to see that the contracting council takes any risk; whether BT or a competitor provides the network is irrelevant as long at the specified service is delivered. DCMS surely has no business protecting the shareholders of private companies that wish to compete to supply councils.
If alt-nets (competitors) wish to build in places where BT has not indicated a desire to build, then the council, voters and taxpayers win. If BT wishes to close out competition by building everywhere, the same applies. If BT decides to build where a competitor has already built, the council and voters win because he or she then has a choice of broadband suppliers, and the same is true if a competitor chooses to build where BT has built.
The state aid money is a distraction. The local authority can spend it only once. It should make no difference whether it spends it with BT or with an alt-net, as long as the specified service is delivered. But it is illegal to give the aid to one supplier who can then use it to compete against a privately funded company, particularly one with an existing network. (This is the objection raised by BT and Virgin Media to block the government’s original £150m Superconnected Cities project.)
That is why it is important to clarify early what BT is contracted to deliver and where so that others can take their chance. Or perhaps no-one is looking after the subscribers’ needs in this matter
It is not clear why BT is being allowed so long to plan its roll-out after signing the contract. Does it not know what assets it has in these locations, and whether they are fit for purpose? Was there not an inventory taken before it was privatised? Were these assets not maintained in the following years? Are there no records of what was done, when, and by whom? And if the work was outsourced, can BT not reconcile the suppliers’ invoices against internal audit reports to establish what it should have?
Cynics will say that’s hard work; it’s much easier to keep going back to the taxpayers for hand-outs, and managing the brand and perceptions. But it’s not a viable long term strategy in a competitive market.