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By: MarkJ - 29 November, 2011 (12:43 PM)
uk fibre optic superfast broadband cableuk budgetThe Chancellor of the coalition UK government, George Osborne, has this afternoon confirmed in his 2011 Autumn Statement that their £30bn National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) will commit an additional £100m to help expand the current rollout of superfast broadband services in "up to ten" 'super-connected cities' across the UK.

At present the governments Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office has already set aside £530m until 2015 (could rise to £830m by 2017 from the BBC TV Licence fee, if necessary) to help 90% of people in predominantly rural areas gain access to superfast broadband (24Mbps+) ISP services (the last 10% will get at least 2Mbps).

Sadly today's announcement was particularly thin on detail but did make mention of a "new" £100m Urban Broadband Fund (UBF). This aims to deliver ultrafast fibre optic based 80-100Mbps (Megabits per second) broadband services (that's a very BT friendly figure for FTTC services) to as many as ten UK cities over the next three years including Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, said:

"The Government is funding plans to bring superfast broadband to 90% of homes and businesses across the country, and extend mobile phone coverage to 99% of families.

This will help create a living, economically vibrant countryside. Our great cities are at the heart of our regional economies.

And we will help bring world leading, superfast broadband and wifi connections to ten of them – including the capitals of all four nations.

We will go ahead with the 22 Enterprise Zones already announced – plus two further zones in Humber and Lancashire confirmed today."

The NIP also mentions "city-wide high speed mobile connectivity" ( Mobile Broadband ) for the same ten cities, although most of the major mobile operators are already aiming to do something similar. What's less clear is where the money will come from, although there is room for this to be extracted from BDUK's existing budget.

The NIP also states that it wants the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to help rollout superfast Broadband (it's been doing this already). It will thus issue "draft guidance next week, which takes a flexible approach to ensure local areas can benefit. Up to £100 million may be available and the Government will work with local partners to start making this happen."

Today's move appears to signal a slight change in strategy for the UK government, which has previously only proposed funding broadband with public money in locations where the private sector has failed to go (e.g. rural areas). However it's easy to forget that large sections of our major cities, including South East London, do still suffer from similar problems.
The UK National Infrastructure Plan 2011 (PDF)
UPDATE 2:42pm

BT has sent us the following statement.

A BT Spokesperson said:

This is a positive initiative that will help ensure our major cities have the best available super-fast broadband. BT is already upgrading large parts of these cities under its commercial roll out plan and these funds could help us go further. We look forward to working closely with the selected cities to see what can be achieved.

BT is also working hard to ensure that rural areas benefit from faster broadband. Large swathes of the countryside will be able to access super fast broadband as BT continues its roll-out and as funds already lined up by the government become available in the next five years or so. In addition, we are testing new technologies to improve speeds where fibre won’t be available. It is important that as many homes as possible have access to fast broadband and our estimate is that the number of broadband ‘slow spots’ will fall to less than two per cent of homes in the near future."

UPDATE 3:08pm

The NIP also states that the £20m Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF), which was first announced back in March 2011 (here), is now finally open to Expressions of Interest. The first Expression of Interest round is between 1st December 2011 and 31st January 2012.

You can apply if your community is in a rural location identified as being in the "10% hard to reach area" covered by your Local Authority's Local Broadband Plan (LBP), or if your LBP is not in place, if you are able to demonstrate that you will be in the 10% of hard to reach areas when the LBP is finalised.

UPDATE 30th November 2011

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), a land owners lobby group for England and Wales, has welcomed the above news.

CLA President, Harry Cotterell, said:

"The creation of the Community Rural Broadband Fund with a pot of £20million to help provide superfast broadband is great news, although we must not forget the remaining 10 percent of rural homes and businesses that will still not have access to good broadband.

A flexible and deregulated planning system is essential for delivering rural growth in the short-term. Well done to the Chancellor for confirming that the presumption in favour of sustainable development will stay in the National Planning Policy Framework. This is extremely welcome, as is the consultation to use redundant agricultural buildings for other business purposes which the CLA has called for since 2004.

We support the Chancellor’s desire to simplify small business taxation. The majority of our members run, own and manage small businesses and virtually of all of them find the tax regime a numerical obstacle course. We encourage the Chancellor to be bold and will engage with the Government to try to make sure tax simplification works in practice."

UPDATE 1st December 2011

The government's DCMS appears to be telling those who enquire that both BT and Virgin Media have agreed to "strengthen" their networks as part of the £100m commitment for major cities. So at least now we have a good idea of where the money is going to go.

However Virgin Media does not provide open wholesale access to its network, which is a core condition of BDUK's bidding process. Interesting.
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