Anger mounts over rural broadband delays
BrokenTelephone is grateful to Patrick Cosgrove for assembling the following reports of wide-spread and growing anger with the politicians, civil servants and operators responsible for the UK’s next generation broadband programme, especially in rural areas.
In a letter on behalf of the South-west Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Broadband, Cosgrove wrote to subscribers as follows:
1. WHERE IS THE LEADERSHIP ON RURAL BROADBAND (1)?
The agitation over rural broadband seems to be moving to Westminster. And not before time.
We’re quite used to Lib/Dem MPs breaking ranks within the Coalition but, with the exception of Europe, not so often Conservative MPs. That seems to be changing now with respect to the countryside and the cross-party Fairer Funding Campaign (see http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/politics/mps-pile-on-pressure-over-rural-funding), of which the broadband issue is part. Put it this way, if you were in government, large numbers of your rural voters were thoroughly fed up with the reality of no decent broadband in the foreseeable future and many of them were stampeding in the direction of UKIP for a whole host of reasons (see http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9069211/rural-revolt/), wouldn’t you do something about it with an election starting to loom? Despite David Cameron’s staunch defence of BDUK’s rural broadband programme, and Maria Miller’s shake-up of BDUK management, it seems that even Conservative MPs are starting to publicly question matters.
This is what John Glen (Conservative Salisbury) said on 31st October: “I thank the minister for that answer (to a general question about the progress of rural broadband roll-out plans), but what do I say to the local authority and residents in village such as Pitton who believe they are in the percentage that will not qualify for the imminent roll-out through the BT deal? They want to be free to develop new community-based solutions with alternative providers, as they anticipate they will not get anything from BT for a long time.”
To which the minister, Ed Vaizey, replied, “I am happy to meet my Hon Friend to discuss any issues. The Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) is designed to support community broadband projects that the programme is no reaching.” To which we say, “But we know that the RCBF money is languishing in Europe because any application has to confirm that it won’t overbuild on BT’s intended infrastructure, only BT won’t tell anyone with any precision where they are going to put that infrastructure.”
Shortly afterwards, Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton Conservative) asked, “What will my Hon Friend say to the 5% of those living in the hills, particularly farmers, who will not have access to superfast broadband by 2016? Will he implement the Select Committee report recommendation that they be given advance warning, so that they can make alternative arrangements to those on offer from BT?” To which Mr Vaizey replied, “As I have said repeatedly, it is up to local authorities to publish their local broadband plans and I am delighted, particularly after the Secretary of State wrote to them, that many have now done so. People in Wiltshire and Yorkshire will know where the project is rolling out”. To which we reply, “Scroll down to the next article to see what a farce that is.”
Then Philip Hollobone (Ketttering, Conservative) said, “It seems to me that BT is a big company that sometimes does not treat small communities very well. May I draw to the attention of the Minister the village of Rushden in my constituency, where residents are complaining that they are not getting the the proper broadband they deserve, despite their best efforts”. And Mr Vaizey replied, “I hear what my Hon. Friend says. BT is a big global company that we should be proud of, but from time to time issues will be raised by our constituents. I am happy to meet him to discuss the problem in detail”. To which we reply, “It’s not just Kettering, Thirsk & Malton and Salisbury. It’s the whole country, including 1,208 people in rural Shropshire who signed a petition making the very same points, and 31 parish and town councils who are also very unhappy.”
We desperately need some strong leadership on this at Westminster as it’s flying in the face off all reason to declare that everything’s fine when it plainly isn’t. A little more honesty and a lot more action would be a great help.
2. DID THE MINISTER SAY PUBLISH LOCAL BROADBAND ROLL-OUT PLANS OR DIDN’T SHE? ?
Knowing who is or isn’t in line for having their broadband upgraded is essential for communities that want to make alternative arrangements. If you don’t know, you can’t apply for public subsidy such as DEFRA’s RCBF grant in case it ends up double-funding an area. Even if you don’t want to apply for funding and you might have sufficient people to make it a viable proposition, alternative broadband providers are not going to invest in your area unless they are certain that BT won’t be operating there in the future, and no-one will tell them.
Here in Shropshire we sent a Freedom of Information Request to Shire Hall asking for a detailed broadband deployment map. They gave it to us but it didn’t tell us very much. We’d seen the Public Accounts Committee recording where Sean Williams of BT said that there was no reason why such information shouldn’t be available, and then we read that Maria Miller of DCMS had said she was “keen to see this information made available” so that other broadband Internet Service Providers and community groups could “determine whether it is worth their while to develop local broadband projects to fill in gaps” so we’d hoped for something a bit more precise. Later we learned that FOI requests were being sent to local authorities all across the country and either receiving similarly opaque answers or, as in Devon’s case for example, were told that they daren’t publish for fear of being taken to court by BT, their so-called “partner”.
Now Cumbria County Council has told Computer Weekly, “The … matter was raised at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). However, subsequent clarifications issued by Maria Miller’s office defined what BT meant by information that could be shared. The list of postcodes to which you refer, called the speed and coverage template (SCT), is excluded. BT considers that (it) is commercially sensitive.”
This decision could leave community-based broadband schemes schemes in limbo for several years if they were hoping for RCBF money (which won’t be there for much longer), and no chance of alternative providers plugging the gaps on a commercial basis for fear that BT will suddenly announce that they might bring fibre to those areas after all (as appears to have happened in parts of Wales and Worcestershire, and probably elsewhere). Meanwhile BT has added to the confusion by saying that it remained happy to hand over the details for release by local councils. It seems that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has chosen to shirk responsibility for the mess by saying that it was ultimately a decision for BT and the local authorities.
Interestingly, North Yorkshire was a pilot area for rural broadband, and it seems that its contract with BT was different because it can publish anticipated deployment to post-code level (see next link). Therefore some bright spark at BDUK or DCMS must have agreed to a tightening up of all the local authority contracts that followed the pilot. It would be great if we had a map like this.
IT SEEMS THAT SOME LOCAL AUTHORITIES HAVE HAD ENOUGH?
Cumbria County Council and Devon have now spilled some of their beans. We wonder if this was code for “We’ve been stuffed by BDUK and BT so can’t say too much, but please read between the lines”. After all, what local authority in their right mind wouldn’t want 100% of their residents to have good broadband, or would want the degree of continuing aggravation that’s resulted?
Refreshingly, in Lancashire where there is still two-tier local government and a thriving community broadband scheme (B4RN) that doesn’t appear to get on with BT too well, Lancaster City Council’s Scrutiny Committee has asked Lancashire County Council to:
1. Request that BT as soon as possible, produces a clear roll out programme for its superfast broadband in the Lancaster District to enable other providers to work in areas not covered by the BT programme
2. Seek immediate permission (!) of BT to provide a clear statement of the terms of their joint agreement
3. Request the removal from any future rural broadband contracts with BT that are on a non-disclosure agreement basis to facilitate openness and transparency.
(Plus more – see this link for the full story: http://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2013/10/uk-gov-creates-confusion-bt-bduk-broadband-coverage-data.html
West Oxfordshire District Council, another second-tier local authority, also seems to have had enough, but they’ve been very polite about it so far.
We will contact them to see if we can learn anything from their approach.
WHERE IS THE LEADERSHIP ON RURAL BROADBAND (2)?
Therefore, the situation isn’t just bad, it’s actually worse than before the rural broadband contracts were signed with local authorities. Up until then communities could apply for RCBF money, now there’s no point. Up until then alternative broadband providers were moving into new areas but now they are not (or if they are they’re keeping it secret – what madness!). And to make matters worse, BT, Sky, Virgin etc have been signing large numbers of people up to their entertainment and sports packages, irrespective of whether these customers have superfast broadband or not, so the whole system is starting to slow up because too many demands are being made of it.
We repeat, “Where is the leadership?”