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Worcestershire UK Allow BT to Overlap Existing Superfast Broadband Network

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013 (1:27 pm) - Score 1,313

The Worcestershire County Council (WCC), which recently signed a state aid supported £20.75m deal with BT to make “high-speed fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) available to 90% of local premises by mid-2016 (here), has warned that it could use some of the money to overbuild an existing superfast wireless broadband network.

The Government’s communications minister, Ed Vaizey, confirmed earlier this year that, “publicly-funded projects are prevented by the state aid rules from overbuilding other projects”. In other words, if a superfast network already exists then public money should not be used in the same area because this would be potentially unfair and risk duplication of the investment.

This is also one of the reasons why it’s taken so long to get funding for independent rural altnet projects released through the £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (here). This has been delayed because councils and BT initially refused to release the full details of their local BDUK rollouts (i.e. smaller ISP projects didn’t know which areas they could target).

It’s important to reflect this because WCC has published a new update that threatens to overbuild an existing network, specifically the £700k Community Pathfinder project from fixed wireless ISP Airband that’s helping to make speeds of up to 50Mbps available to 14 of Worcestershire’s parish communities / around 2000 residents (here). Funnily enough it’s a scheme that the council itself supports.

WCC FAQ Update (BDUK Superfast Broadband Scheme)

Q. How do the Community Pathfinder Projects fit in?

A. Worcestershire is the first authority in the UK to have community pathfinder projects which has already brought faster Broadband to 14 rural parishes through an investment of £700k from grant funding ahead of the Local Broadband Plan.

For these 14 parishes, Airband was the preferred supplier and the successful implementation has been widely publicised. Whilst these communities have access to much improved speeds they were not removed from our intervention area for the countywide programme, therefore these communities may still receive the ‘fibre’ based solution.

According to Computer Weekly, if WCC were to go ahead with such a move and allow BDUK/BT to overbuild Airband’s network then they might risk breaking the EU’s state aid rules. The BDUK process also claims to be “technology neutral” but it doesn’t always work out that way.

Both the EU and UK government still tend to treat fixed wireless ISPs like second class citizens and some councils have excluded related services from their local maps of Next Generation Access (NGA) availability.

Similarly new guidance published earlier this year (here) warned that wireless providers could take part in the BDUK process but only if their proposed platform is an “interim solution chosen where a fibre-based solution is not yet economically viable, and there shall be a commitment to replace non-wired connections with fibre at a later stage“.

In this case WCC’s excuse is a crafty one as they claim that “there were no commercial plans to provide a fibre broadband service in the community pathfinder areas” and thus it would allegedly not break state aid rules to go back and deploy fibre there. Only time will tell whether or not the original investment of £700k will now effectively be flushed down the drain.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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