Auditor General seeks value in £425m Welsh broadband projects
He has postponed a study of public sector broadband aggregation (PSBA) in favour of the value for money review, which is due out by the end of the year.
The study will try to answer three questions:
- Does the Welsh government have a coherent strategy for investing in high speed broadband infrastructure in Wales?
- Does the Welsh government have robust contractual arrangements for Superfast Cymru?
- Are the Welsh government’s high speed broadband programmes likely to achieve the intended benefits?
In scope is the effectiveness of the government’s strategy and targets; the programme’s financial planning and governance; the contractual arrangements with BT; the procurement processes, risk management arrangements, and the monitoring and evaluation of the contract.
Not in scope is the propriety of having BT staff represent the Welsh government’s fund-raising effort in Europe, says Rachel Moss, head of communications at the Auditor General’s office.
The question of a possible conflict of interest in having Ann Beynon, BT director of Wales, sit on the European Programmes Partnership Forum in the Welsh European Funding Office was questioned in March 2013. £90m of the money for Superfast Cymru comes from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF.)
At the time the Audit Office said, “We need to establish the risks arising from any real or perceived conflicts of interest, how they have been managed and the extent to which appropriate declarations of interest have been made.”
The value for money review follows the National Audit Office’s scathing review of the UK government’s next generation broadband programme overseen by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). The NAO said there was no clear way to assess whether taxpayers would see value for money, and the £1.2bn they were giving BT would strengthen BT’s monopoly.
The review also follows a damning critique of the Superfast Cymru contract with BT by broadband consultant Richard Brown. “BT will deliver exactly what it contracted for, which is 95% of homes passed,” he said.
BT’s local network subsidiary Openreach is expected to lay 17,500km optical fibre and install around 3,000 new fibre broadband cabinets in parts of the country not covered by BT’s commercial plans. The government hopes to cover 96 per cent of the population.
Asked why the study is being done now, despite criticism of the project and its process before the contract was awarded, Moss said, “It would have been premature to carry out a review of this nature before the contract was signed – this would be straying into policy decisions which are not matters for the Auditor General, and limited evidence would have been available on the likelihood of the project delivering its intended benefits. The current timing of the study allows for a broader examination of the likely impact of the Welsh Government’s investment in broadband infrastructure.
Part of the report will compare the Welsh project with that of England. “The NAO’s work in England and that of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is certainly helpful in enabling us to compare the situation in England with Wales and this will be reflected in the final report,” Moss said.
The PAC has said it will recall BT a second time because it is unhappy with BT’s answers to its questions at two earlier hearings to discuss the NAO’s findings.
The Welsh Auditor General will survey around 1000 businesses and households in Blaenau Gwent and Gwynedd, the two areas where there has been “significant progress”, to see what difference access to BT’s Infinity product is making.
The general public can also recount their experiences of the Superfast Cymru programme by emailing email@example.com. The auditors will not able to take up any complaints about BT or other broadband service providers and may not be able to reply to individual correspondence, the Auditor General’s office warned.
Note: Brown has submitted a Freedom of Information request for the test data and methodology that led the Welsh deputy minister for skills and technology Ken Skates to associate himself with press claims that over 100,000 premises are now able to access fast fibre broadband as a result of Superfast Cymru.
“The houses have been tested and verified as being able to receive superfast speeds. The average download speed of 61 Mbps is also more than double the contractual minimum for the programme,” the News Wales web site said.
It then went on to quote Skates as saying, “The fact that where premises are already benefiting as a result of the programme, with an average speed three times the UK average, shows the positive impact it is having as roll-out continues.”