Thursday, January 05, 2012

UK broadband update (continued)


The flurry of broadband announcements and activities I described in my last post of 2011 continued unabated  in the run up to Christmas.

Firstly, the Countryside Alliance claimed that rural broadband had "stalled", following Freedom of Information requests revealing that (according to coverage by the BBC) of the four broadband pilot areas announced in 2010, "none had received any money from the Treasury, chosen a company to build their networks, or started work on them". Which to me seemed a rather unfair comment, given the complexity of the requirement, the processes involved in spending public money and that all four pilots are in fact currently at the procurement stage.

The BBC article reported that DCMS officials were both happy with the progress being made and confident that all was on track to deliver the Government's 2015 broadband targets. So this DCMS press release the following week was a bit of a surprise really, especially as reading between the lines it could be taken to mean that local authorities are to blame for the process allegedly "stalling", rather than the nature of the process necessitating the timetables currently being worked to:
"Today the Culture Secretary laid out a timetable for local authorities to complete their plans and ensure the UK has the best broadband network in Europe by 2015. Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt said: “Superfast broadband is fundamental to our future economic success. Businesses need it to grow, the public will need it to access new services. Some local authorities will find these to be challenging targets. But I will not allow the UK to fall behind in rolling-out superfast broadband. Superfast broadband is simply too important for creating the growth we need to allow the roll-out to be delayed. I am confident local authorities will be able to meet the timetable and provide their businesses and residents with the broadband access they need.” The Government published its strategy for rolling-out broadband in rural areas in December last year and announced how much funding had been allocated to each area in August this year."
Which again seemed rather unfair to me. In my view it would've been more appropriate to rebut the criticisms made by the Countryside Alliance by reiterating the view expressed by DCMS officials in the BBC article, rather than imply local authorities are the reason for the delay, when they have been working in accordance with the processes and timetables previously set out by DCMS and Broadband Delivery UK. I would imagine this is the part that caused the most upset, the February 2012 deadline was news to me and many others I suspect:
"Local authorities now have until the end of February next year to submit a draft Local Broadband Plan. A final plan needs to be agreed with the Government by the end of April. The local authority will need to have match-funding in place with this money coming from their budgets, European programmes or any other source. The Government cannot guarantee funding will remain available to areas that cannot complete this process by the end of April. The £530m has to be used within the Spending Review period so if projects are not ready in time, the funding may be used elsewhere to help provide the UK with the best broadband network in Europe by 2015. Once the plans have been approved, the Government will work with local authorities as they prepare for procurement and this work should be completed within a further three months. The Government will consider running a national procurement for areas not ready by the end of July."
So if the Government's considering delivery via a national procurement anyway, might some local authorities decide simply to leave it to them to sort out? Or is this the venerable public policy stalking horse putting in another appearance here perhaps? Further reports from the BBC about the rollout of fibre in Jersey and the launch of the B4RN project in Lancashire (more here) provided an interesting counterpoint to this DCMS release.

The following week saw another DCMS press release, this time announcing that fourteen cities across the UK would have the chance to become super-connected cities via a new £100m urban broadband fund. This  added detail to the previous announcement made as part of Chancellor George Osborne's 2011 Autumn Statement, though this made reference to ten rather than fourteen recipients. Here's the detail from the DCMS release:
"As part of their proposal to the urban broadband fund, the cities will have to bid for a share of the £100 million and detail how they will use it. BT and Virgin will strengthen their networks in the winning cities to deliver 80-100Mbps broadband speeds. The city’s share of the £100 million can be used to provide coverage in areas where BT and Virgin will not go or services beyond what the market will provide. The bidding cities will have to show how they will use super-connected status to drive growth with a particular focus on SMEs and strategic employment zones. Proposals will also need to include plans for city-wide high-speed mobile connectivity and bidding cities will be expected to contribute to the cost by providing additional investment or using public assets. Proposals have to be submitted by February 13 2012 and the successful cities will be announced in the Budget in March. The Government will then work with the successful cities to produce fully developed plans and the money allocated to each city will be announced in July. The four capitals will become super-connected cities but will still need to produce a plan detailing their proposals."
Guidance for prospective bidders is available here. Finally also in December BDUK published a Prior Information Notice (PIN) for improved mobile coverage in rural areas:
"The aim of the Mobile Infrastructure Project is to improve the coverage and quality of mobile network services; for the five to 10 per cent of consumers in areas of the United Kingdom where existing mobile network coverage is poor or non-existent; and with the aim of extending coverage to 99 per cent of the United Kingdom population. BDUK anticipate that procurement will begin by spring 2012 and it is anticipated that businesses and consumers will benefit from improved coverage from early 2013 onwards.BDUK is currently developing the delivery model and procurement options for the use of the government funding, in order to develop or extend mobile infrastructure in areas where there is an insufficient commercial case. Given the early stage of the process several procurement options are under consideration, including, but not limited to: (a) the procurement of the appropriate support infrastructure to enable increased mobile network coverage and service quality, or (b) the procurement of increased mobile coverage and service quality as a service."
This follows on from the announcement by the Treasury in October of plans to invest up to £150 million to improve mobile coverage in the UK.

A busy end to a busy year. Let's see what 2012 has in store for us.