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UPD UK Gov Creates Confusion Over BT and BDUK Broadband Coverage Data

Monday, October 28th, 2013 (3:58 pm) - Score 1,538
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The Cumbria County Council appears to have confirmed that the government’s culture secretary, Maria Miller, will not require local authorities to publish BT’s postcode-based superfast broadband speed and coverage data for Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) funded deployments. The decision could leave small (altnet) ISP schemes in limbo for several years.

At present a number of smaller ISP and community schemes are stuck in limbo as they wait to secure grants from the £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), which has been stalled for several months over allegations that BT and Local Authorities have been refusing to reveal detailed coverage information related to the BDUK roll-out.

The £1.2bn BDUK project aims to make superfast broadband services available to 95% of the United Kingdom by 2017 but state aid rules prevent public money being used to overbuild an existing superfast network. The catch-22 is that many RCBF projects cannot secure grant funding without first being able to prove that their networks won’t overbuild BDUK, which is difficult to answer without the release of specific coverage and speed data.

Back in August 2013 Maria Miller, whom has been keen to fend off related criticism from a scathing attack by the Public Accounts Committee (here), issued a notice to local authorities saying that she was “keen to see this information made available” so that other broadband ISPs and community groups could “determine whether it is worth their while to develop local broadband projects to fill in gaps” (here). Miller’s department is said to have warned that it would be difficult to distribute future funding to local authorities that didn’t comply with her request.

But since then the only coverage and speed data to be released has come in the form of vague maps and general targets, which rarely shrink down to the necessary street/postcode level information. A recent BDUK Industry Day event (here) also saw the government all but confirm that RCBF projects might now have to wait until BDUK has completed before they can access their own funding to help fill in the gaps. Now a new comment from the Cumbria County Council appears to confirm that the postcode data was never even part of Millers request.

A Cumbria County Council spokesperson told Computer Weekly:

The above matter was raised at the public accounts committee (PAC). However, subsequent clarifications issued by Maria Miller’s office defined what BT meant by information that could be shared. The list of postcodes to which you refer, called the speed and coverage template (SCT), is excluded. BT considers that the SCT is commercially sensitive.”

Meanwhile BT added to the confusion by saying that it remained happy to hand over the details for release by local councils. Naturally Miller’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has chosen to shirk responsibility for the mess and merely said that it was ultimately a decision for BT and the local authorities.

So to summarise, councils say BT won’t let them release the “commercially sensitive” information but BT said it’s not a problem. The game of telecoms Cluedo continues.

UPDATE 29th October 2013

In related news the Lancaster City Council held a meeting earlier this month that was attended by B4RN and BT. The meeting included an update on Lancashire’s “Rural Broadband” project, which is using public funding to help extend BT’s fibre-based (FTTC/P) superfast broadband network to 97% of local premises.

The issue over coverage also cropped up as B4RN are one of the altnets waiting for news of a significant RCBF grant, which has been similarly stuck in limbo due to the aforementioned situation. The Overview and Scrutiny Committee ultimately voted in favour of the following approach.

That the Overview and Scrutiny Committee:

1. Request that BT as soon as possible, produces a clear roll out programme for its superfast broadband in the Lancaster District to enable other providers to work in areas not covered by the BT programme.

2. Request Lancashire County Council to seek immediate permission of BT to provide a clear statement of the terms of their joint agreement.

3. Requests the removal from any future rural broadband contracts with BT that are on a non-disclosure agreement basis to facilitate openness and transparency.

4. Expresses its concern that a large amount of publicly funded infrastructure to facilitate improved rural broadband may be handed over to a single company, without the necessary measures being in place to ensure open and competitive access to other providers. (This may well lead to a rural/urban divide where more remote areas have to pay extra for a single supplier, where urban areas achieve lower costs because of effective competition. This will place these rural areas at a commercial disadvantage and would appear to negate the reason for extending public monies to achieve an equitable and economical level of service.)

5. Expresses its concern that the amount of expenditure by local authorities appears to have risen considerably at a time of severe economic pressure whereas the contributions from BT appear to have fallen. It is also a matter of concern that the costs related to the Northern Ireland programme also provided by BT appear to be considerably cheaper than the costs in mainland UK. Action should be taken by national and local government with BT to address this imbalance.

6. That, once the County Council has received a decision from the Government as to whether BT can enter the areas B4RN has reached, this decision is circulated to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

7. That the County Council in consultation with BT and B4RN provide answers to the written questions submitted.

8. That B4RN circulate details of the postcodes that were covered by the project.

The words “as soon as possible” in no.1 could cover a multitude of sins (e.g. waiting until the BDUK project is completed) and no.3 could impact future uses for a slice of the extra £250m that has been set aside to extend UK superfast broadband coverage out to 95% by 2017.

However one of the most crucial points appears to be no.6 because state-aid rules prevent overbuilding of an existing superfast network and there’s no doubt that B4RN’s FTTH platform ticks all the boxes in that respect. It would be extremely significant if the government decided that BT could overbuild B4RN via the publicly funded project.

On the flip side if B4RN can gain some security from the government then other altnets might consider it worthwhile to risk a deployment ahead of BT, which would prevent the incumbent from pushing them out later via BDUK funding.

As a side note B4RN has already done no.8.

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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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