Friday, 04 September 2015

MP demands review of Cumbrian broadband roll-out

Cumbrian MP Tim Farron has urged a review of the provision of superfast broadband in Cumbria after a committee of MPs blasted the Government's subsidy of the roll-out as a waste of public money.

Today's damning report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded that the Government had failed to ensure there was fair competition for the huge subsidies involved in providing broadband to rural areas with all 26 contracts so far, including Cumbria, ending up with telecommunications giant BT.

Mr Farron believes the PAC report is further evidence that Cumbria is not getting the broadband provision it needs. “The report by the Public Accounts Committee puts in black and white the concerns that I and many other campaigners have about rural broadband in Cumbria. People in rural areas deserve the same broadband speeds as those living in cities.

"Commercial firms such as Virgin Media and BT see little profit in rolling out services to areas with few people living in them. We need the government to be stronger and force them to deliver better and quicker broadband for rural communities in Cumbria. I am worried that the broadband plan for Cumbria is not future proof and will ultimately fail local communities. I want the council and BT to look at this again urgently and make sure they deliver the network we need.”

The report concludes: "The Department for Culture, Media and Sport's design of the rural broadband programme has failed to deliver the intended competition for contracts, with the result that BT has strengthened its already strong position in the market."

The committee's chairwoman Margaret Hodge MP told Radio 4's Today programme this morning that BT was an old style monopoly and should be more transparent in giving details of its roll-out.

"I have had representations from people in Cumbria who are desperate to know which postcodes BT are covering so that they can make alternative arrangements but BT is refusing to allow those postcodes to be revealed and the only reason is that they are so determined to maintain their monopoly position that they are hiding the information," she added.

During the committee hearing Mrs Hodge also raised the plight of Cumbrian farmers who needed online access, but had no broadband. "People I know in Cumbria tell me that if you go for 90 per cent (coverage), you miss the very remote farmers. DEFRA is insisting that all rural payments are now paid online. There will be no other way of claiming them except online."

In Cumbria the awarding of the superfast broadband contract was a fraught process hit by repeated by delays before BT won the £40m subsidy. Fujitsu pulled out of tendering process claiming that it was non-competitive and other firms complained that smaller companies should have been allowed to bid for the work.

BT was also criticised in the report for failing to provide local authorities with information about where exactly it would roll out superfast broadband services, which in turn hampered rivals from drawing up alternatives.

Such a lack of transparency meant that the company "exploited its quasi-monopoly position" to limit access to both the wholesale and retail market "to the detriment of the consumer", concluded the report.

BT has rejected the MPs' findings "which we believe is simply wrong and fails to take on board a point-by-point correction we sent to the committee several weeks ago".

It added: "We have been transparent from the start and willing to invest when others have not.

"It is therefore mystifying that we are being criticised for accepting onerous terms in exchange for public subsidy - terms which drove others away."

A spokesman for Cumbia County Council said: "The criticism from the Public Accounts Committee has been at a national level rather than specifically about Cumbria.

"We've just worked within the same procurement guidelines as all other local authorities in the BDUK programme. From Cumbria's perspective, more than £50m of investment in telecommunications infrastructure is being spent in the county to deliver a fibre network getting superfast broadband to 93 per cent of properties by the end of 2015.

"This is many millions of pounds which just wasn't there before the BDUK programme existed and will include rural businesses and farmers. As a local authority which fights its corner for national investment to come into Cumbria, we welcome this and are concentrating on local delivery rather than national politics."

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Have your say

Intention seems to be putting in fast connections to exchange but what about to individual villages, poles and cables to homes. Are they going to upgrade all of those as well? I don't expect super fast but want consistent speed and reliable connections and those can only be achieved by upgrading from exchange to every home.

Posted by sian on 26 September 2013 at 17:20

I get my superfast broadband from a Cumbrian provider (Krypton TV of Patterdale) who supply satellite broadband. It only needs a power supply and a view of the sky. This system would never get the sort of subsidy BT can obtain, but I live somewhere I'd wait years for BT, so there are local alternatives that the County could support immediately, and Cumbrian business need a secure on-line platform to complete effectively.

Posted by Bill Roberts on 26 September 2013 at 17:01

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