The UK government's much-trumpeted Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) initiative that is supposed to bring the benefits of high-speed broadband access to rural Britain by 2015 has stalled, mainly because EU regulators say the system set up to select suppliers who will build the infrastructure is insufficiently competitive. Martyn Warwick reports.
BDUK has been neck-deep in European mud since the start of the year with the apparatchiks of Brussels declaring the programme to be flawed and partial because the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the government agency that is now responsible for the broadband initiative (for reasons that baffle and bemuse lots of analysts and industry observers) set the bar for supplier selection so high that only two companies, BT and Fujitsu, have managed to clamber over it with their dignity still intact.
According to Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport( and one has to be so very careful how one spells that surname after the recent unfortunate lip malfunction on the part of a presenter on "Today", the UK's biggest morning news radio programme, who slipped in a "C" where a "C" simply shouldn't be), the "goal is simple: within this parliament [it will, at the very latest, expire in May 2015] we want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe.”
However, as the 450 year-old English proverb has it, "fine words butter no parsnips", and there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that all of Britain will covered by what the government is pleased to call "superfast broadband" and what the rest of us call "barely adequate Internet access speeds for a small, densely-populated fully-industrialised First World country" in less than three years time. It's an underfunded pipe dream and that's all there is to it.
The notion is that under the BDUK initiative, the government would spend some £850 million, (a risible sum in all truth but just about better than a poke in the eye with a burned stick) to ensure that rural and remote locations currently without broadband would take a great leap forward from extant technologies that have been around since the 1950's and join the 21st century electronic revolution.
Now, in the great scheme of things, £850 million is peanuts but that hasn't deterred various consultancy houses and PR companies from getting in on the act and their snouts in the trough.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has just published figures showing that it paid KPMG a fat £1,179,630 in taxpayers money for the provision of "temporary staff and interim managers" over the latter half of 2011. It has also paid KPMG £968,335 for "management consultancy services" provided between mid-January and late March this year. No doubt we shall be appraised of other payments in due course, while rural Britain remains locked in narrowband purgatory.
Meanwhile, lawyers Pinsent Masons have pocketed £710,943 - par for the course for lawyers, you might think.
Most intriguingly, Analysis Mason got £68,000 for "modelling" - whether that was for a scaled representation of a Highland telephone exchange rendered in matchsticks, or photographs of a nicely turned ankle or two, we are not told.
The original idea behind BDUK was fine and even altruistic but it has been traduced and perverted over the years. The aim was to put in place a transparent competitive process whereby private companies and local or regional communities and interest groups would bid to build Broadband Britain.
BDUK went ahead an built a list of 35 municipalities and rural areas where the provision of broadband infrastructure and services would be put to competitive tender. A few companies rose to the challenge and then just as quickly backed-off when it became apparent that ROI would take longer than they would have liked and that profits might not be as stratospheric as those regularly raked-in from the conurbations. Well, they wouldn't be would they? We're talking about sparsely-populated rural communities not the Square Mile of the City of London. Many community -sponsored and backed community projects also failed and collapsed - with one or two notable and laudable exceptions. Take a bow the Trough of Boland.
In the end, of all the big boys, only Fujitsu and the UK's incumbent telco BT have the intestinal fortitude to follow through and put their monies where their mouths are and yesterday, Ed Vaizey, the UK minister with responsibility for telecoms announced that the pair would be going ahead and coming to arrangements with individual local authorities to speed the deployment of new broadband infrastructure.
So BT and Fujitsu should now get access to state funding to help defray some costs but that arrangement is now in doubt because the European Commission has ruled that the tendering process militated in favour of some applicants over others and that BT is either not investing enough on fibre-based infrastructure projects or will not provide competitors with easy access to its to it's infrastructure. The EC says BT has a de facto monopoly over its ducts and poles and that they should be opened-up for rivals to co-locate infrastructure upon and within.
A BT spokesperson commented, "Discussions between the UK government and the Commission continue on the issue of state aid. This is an EU issue as the Commission is developing rules that need to work across Europe as well as taking the different conditions in the UK into consideration. We are working with the UK authorities for an outcome that both incentivises further investment in fibre broadband and delivers vibrant competition in broadband services."
Behind the thousand yard stare and the rictus of the death' s head grin, you can almost hear the grinding of the teeth.
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