FOI request shows broadband money goes unspent

By Derek du Preez
09 Dec 2011 View Comments

The Countryside Alliance has released results of a freedom of information (FOI) request highlighting the fact that much of the money distributed to counties for the rollout of high-speed broadband remains unspent.

In October 2010, chancellor George Osborne announced four pilot schemes to take place in Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire that were to be "models for public and private sector collaboration on high-speed broadband networks in rural Britain".

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The information released demonstrates that the reality is very different. It shows that Highlands and Islands hasn't spent any money at all, Cumbria has spent just £20k, Herefordshire £50k and North Yorkshire £500k.

Each pilot has been allocated between £5m and £10m of government funding.

The Countryside Alliance claims that although money has been put forward, the councils are being left "high and dry", with little idea about how to implement plans.

"The Countryside Alliance has frequently praised this government's commitment to improving rural broadband coverage, and the funds they have put aside for councils are very welcome.

However, as the responses from the pilot councils show, local authorities are struggling to turn Whitehall's promises into reality," said Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.

"It has been over a year since these pilots were set up and the people who live in areas with no or unreliable broadband coverage have not seen any improvement," she added.

"Unless more is done to simplify the process of acquiring and implementing rural broadband projects, the digital divide will continue to grow and the money pledged by the coalition will be worth nothing."

Charlie Davies, principal analyst at Ovum, says the UK is struggling to make progress with rural broadband rollouts because there isn't a function being provided by government that outlines how to make these projects work.

"The issue in the UK is that, unlike some other European markets, there really isn't a precedent for systematic deployment of community schemes. It happens organically," explained Davies.

"The rollout is dependent on the individuals within the local authorities, how up to speed they are on technology, to what extent they are advocates of broadband and also on the supply dynamics in the area," she added.

"In other European countries, such as France, there is actually a precedent being set for those regional broadband projects.

"In France, there is an organisation that aggregates the initiatives that develop best practices and then works with the French regulator (ARCEP) to develop these."

The government pledged a further £530m last November to ensure that 90 per cent of households in each local authority could access super-fast broadband as part of its Comprehensive Spending Review.

This money is being administered by Broadband Delivery UK, which operates under the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), and is available to BT and its competitors, who will bid for the funds to accelerate broadband rollout in rural areas.

The DCMS believes the pilots are not in trouble. "All four pilot projects are in procurement and making good progress," said a DCMS spokesperson.

"We remain confident the UK will have the best broadband network in Europe by 2015."

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