Westminster’s fears over pace of rural broadband scheme

Secretary of State for Culture,media and transport Sajid Javid visits Beccles to talk about the roll

Secretary of State for Culture,media and transport Sajid Javid visits Beccles to talk about the rollout of superfast broadband in the town. Local Mp Peter Aldous, Christne Pincent, Sajid Javid, Roland Blunk and Mark Bee. - Credit: Nick Butcher

A group of MPs has raised concerns over the pace of BT’s rural broadband programme.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is worried deadlines for the delivery of the scheme will slip.

Both Suffolk and Essex county councils are among the local authority areas taking part in the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme which aims to get superfast broadband to 95% of the country by 2017, and a basic broadband service to everyone by 2016.

In Essex the aim is to get superfast broadband to 87% of people by the end of summer 2016 in phase one.

But the committee members were told by BT the 2017 target might get set back by as much as a year.

They also raised concerns that some areas would get an upgraded broadband service while others would have none, a fact masked by national average figures.

The MPs also called for more transparency of contracts between local authorities and BT, which won all of the first phase contracts in the UK, ahead of the award of the second phase tenders.

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The issue of rural broadband is becoming increasingly important, the committee found, with a good internet connection needed for things ranging from children’s homework to Common Agricultural Policy payments from the European Union and many services now becoming online-only.

Anne McIntosh, committee chairman, said: “People living in the hard-to-reach 5% of premises need the same access as the rest to online and digital services.

“There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none.

“We are concerned the current broadband rollout targets are based on inaccurate assumptions that universal basic broadband coverage has largely been achieved when the reality is that many rural communities are still struggling with no access, or slow broadband speeds.

“The universal service commitment of 2Mbps is already outdated. This is a minimum speed commitment to the public and it must reflect modern technological demands, it is not high enough – 10Mbps is a more suitable target.

“Farmers are key drivers of the rural economy, ensuring all farmers are able to access the new online-only CAP applications later this year is absolutely vital.

“We recognise poor broadband access is not exclusively a rural issue.”

A BT spokesman said: “The roll-out is on track. Since giving evidence to the EFRA Committee last year, our deployment of high-speed fibre broadband has accelerated and we are confident the targets will be met.

“The government target of 95% coverage is realistic subject to the identified funds and matching local amounts being allocated to contracts.

“Although we think the 2017 timescale for achieving this appears tight, given that contracts have not yet been signed, we believe it is still possible to achieve it if the bid process and build goes to plan.

“BT is making excellent progress in delivering our contracts with 44 local authorities. We have passed nearly 22m premises, 40,000 per week in rural areas currently and we are on target to meet all final contractual targets.

“We are looking to deploy technologies suitable for each local area to get maximum coverage and benefit.

“We are not resting on our laurels with regard to speed, in January we announced plans to deliver much faster broadband to most of the UK through G.Fast, which will deliver ultrafast speeds of up to 500Mbps within a decade.”

Kevin Bentley, Essex county councillor for infrastructure and economic growth, said: “The Superfast Essex programme remains on track to ensure 87% of the county has access to superfast broadband by the end of summer 2016, together with commercial plans.

“This is testament to the good working relationship which has developed within the combined Essex County Council and BT Superfast Essex Project Team which meets regularly to ensure engineering schedules and governance deadlines are met and any potential risks are monitored and managed effectively.

“The number of homes and businesses enabled to access superfast broadband is growing steadily and we expect to announce we have reached a new key milestone in delivery early next week.

“Our phase two plans, aiming to extend coverage to 95%, are in progress and early consideration is being given to how we might close the remaining 5% gap if further funding is to become available in future.”

Sajid Javid, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, visited Beccles yesterday to meet Waveney MP Peter Aldous, Suffolk County Council (SCC) leader Mark Bee and business leaders to discuss the broadband boost to the town.

Around 1,000 additional properties have been given the opportunity to connect to super-fast broadband as part of the Better Broadband campaign contract between SCC and BT.

Mr Bee said Suffolk was the only county to have entered the second phase of the campaign.

He added: said: “At times we have had to hold their feet to the fire but on the whole it has been a very positive relationship.

“They know if they can do it here in Suffolk they can do it in any other large rural county, and they are happy for us to be first.”

Mr Javid said: “The government has been working flat out for five years to make sure we get super-fast broadband across the country. It makes a big difference in market towns and we are working together to promote these areas.”