The official in charge of the government’s £530m superfast broadband programme has pledged that its cities’ scheme will be run on “competitive” lines following accusations the previous rural stage was monopolised by British Telecom.
Robert Sullivan, chief executive of Broadband Delivery UK, the unit which is coordinating both stages of the programme, promised councillors at a meeting of the LGA executive last week that the rules for the city scheme would be “competitive”.
Ministers would also make “critical decisions” within weeks about the role local government would play in funding superfast broadband in cities, he added. These decisions would feed into negotiations with the European Commission about how the urban scheme would comply with state aid rules.
Officials will have to work out how much money will be awarded to successful bidders for contracts to deliver urban broadband schemes and what conditions will be imposed on them. Such conditions could include making broadband available to deprived areas where take-up may be lower, and schools. Under state aid rules EU governments are banned from paying private firms to build infrastructure they were already prepared to build without state subsidy.
Mr Sullivan set out the next steps for the urban scheme following criticisms from local government leaders that the previous rural stage of BDUK’s broadband scheme had handed a monopoly to telecommunications giant BT.
Councillors also claimed they were being scapegoated for delaying the delivery of broadband in rural areas. Setbacks were instead related to the government’s negotiations with the European Commission over state aid rules for that stage, they claimed.
LGA chairman Merrick Cockell (Con) told Mr Sullivan: “One message you could take back related to BT, and especially because it has a monopoly, is that we think it is outrageous that it passes the blame for delays to local government. We have heard that at the highest level BT are playing this tune to the government”.
Sir Merrick described BT’s approach as “schizophrenic”, pointing out that the company was simultaneously trying to win major contracts with local authorities. His concerns were echoed by other sector leaders at the meeting.
Neil Clarke (Con), leader of Rushcliffe BC, said he was also concerned that the telecommunications company would squeeze out competition from other providers. “BT have got us by the wotsits…it’s ridiculous”, he added.
Mr Sullivan praised councils for providing funds for rural broadband. “In all cases local authorities have matched the BDUK contribution, and in many places have gone beyond it, which I think is a testament to the foresight of local authorities”, he said.
Under the superfast broadband scheme, the government expects to spend £530m until 2015 to hook 90% of premises up to superfast broadband. While BDUK oversees both the rural and urban schemes, local authorities are expected to play a greater role in the former.
A BT spokesman said: “BT has never blamed councils for the delays in relation to the BDUK programme. It was the state aid issue that was holding things up and that has now been resolved.
“BT works in close partnership with councils across the UK and is investing very large sums to help bring fibre broadband to their areas. We might be alone in doing this but that is because other companies have walked away saying the business case is too challenging. In contrast, BT has stuck by its local partners even though the business case is a tough one.”