Yesterday, I returned to work after a
lovely week away in the beautiful Peak District with my boyfriend, full of
country walks, textile museums and a fair few whiskeys at some of the best
rural pubs in the country - I would highly recommend the Kings Head to anyone
who ends up in Bonsall, by the way.
But before I had even finished my first cup
of tea back at my desk, the on-going BDUK saga took yet another turn that made
me spit my hot brew all over my laptop (don't worry boss, everything is in
As readers of this blog will know, I have
been seeking out the postcode data for this project detailing where the
roll-out of superfast broadband would be going and which areas would be left
out. Again, as anyone following the story will be aware, this has been a far
from easy task.
Since I began the investigation in July,
not one council has offered me a list of the postcodes - even when I have
submitted Freedom of Information requests - that both the Department for
Culture, Media and Sport and BT confirmed existed, as they were drawn up for
when each contract was signed.
Some have claimed they don't have the
postcode lists, others have denied it is in the public interest for them to be
published, but most worryingly of all for a scheme that is funded by the tax
payer, a number have said they cannot release the data as it is commercially
sensitive to BT.
I have continued to push the local
authorities through more FOIs and complaints as the DCMS and BT have said ever
since the famed public accounts committee back in July that they were happy for
this data to be made public.
Take this exchange between the chair of the
committee, Margaret Hodge MP, Sean Williams, head of group director of
strategy, policy and portfolio for BT, and Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the
Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA).
Margaret Hodge: Is it true that, in your contracts with local
authorities, you are preventing local authority officers from raising any
concerns publicly or discussing their contractual arrangements with other local
authorities? Is that true or not true?
Sean Williams: No, it is not true.
Malcolm Corbett: What about the non-disclosure agreements?
Sean Williams: Can I deal with that, because it was a theme in
the remarks earlier? Every local authority, when we sign a contract, has an
outline plan, which specifies to the level of individual postcodes where the
likely BDUK footprint will be. Local communities can then ask the local
authority, "Is my area covered in the BDUK footprint or not?" Local
authorities will give them the answer.
process is currently working. It has worked successfully for Rothbury in
Northumberland. It is being used successfully for probably dozens of other RCBF
bids at the present time. That is a fact.
Malcolm Corbett: Members of INCA have put in freedom of
information requests to a number of local authorities to get speed and coverage
templates that cover the whole county so that you can identify where the
roll-out will be, over what time scale, and those areas where there will not be
roll-out-the final 10%. We have put in freedom of information requests and they
have all come back saying, "This is commercially confidential information
that cannot be released".
cannot see how it can possibly be in the public interest that our money is
being spent in this way without us knowing where the money will be spent and
where it will not be spent so that communities can take alternative action.
Sean Williams: We have suggested to the Department and BDUK
that they should be published at that point.
Seems pretty clear, yes? But even the best
of us can doubt ourselves, and as local authorities continued to say no and
even more cited the 'commercial interests' reason for keeping schtum, I continued
to check with representatives at both BT and the DCMS to confirm they were
happy for this data to be published.
And they continued to say yes. Take this
response I got from a BT spokesman in September when I asked specifically about
whether the postcodes could be published...
you say, BT has said on record several times that it has no issue with this
data being released. Our position remains the same as it did at the PAC hearing
and we've been very clear on that. The information on the intended BDUK
intervention areas is available to Local Bodies and it's a matter for them to
decide whether they publish it."
But, here we are in November and apparently
I have been getting it wrong all this time. Yesterday at a meeting in central
London, my colleague asked Bill Murphy, managing director of next-generation access for BT,
whether the postcodes could be published and he flat out said no. Why? Well,
because of commercial interests of course...
"It's commercially sensitive information," said Murphy. "You
can publish [coverage] maps and most councils are doing that... [but] you never
know until you get there. We have a plan and a view but you do not know until
you do the surveys and build and it is subject to change."
at Computer Weekly were shocked. After months of saying over and over again it
was fine for the data to be published and several sources behind closed doors
insinuating it was the councils holding everything up, BT had now changed their
tune. So we wrote the story.
Cue an email from a BT press officer,
complaining about the story and adding: "At no point has BT said that it's
happy for postcode data to be published."
I won't lie; there may be a dent in my desk
from where I felt the need to smack my head against it several times. An
exchange ensued where I sent said press officer the correspondence and the
details of the public accounts committee as I shared with you above.
The final email I received was as close as
I think we will get to an acknowledgement, and it really isn't very close...
appears to be some confusion as my understanding is that our comments at the
PAC always referred to draft, indicative plans being published by councils and
not individual postcode data for the reasons explained in my previous email.
You've probably seen that many councils have now published the draft plans on
for any confusion, however, and can see why you've written this up as a story
if that was your impression. "
So there you go guys and gals, I am afraid this
was all in my pretty little head and I have just been a confused journalist
reading reports, conducting interviews, checking facts, making calls and
submitting FOI requests to get an 'impression' - in case you don't know me
well, I see sarcasm as the highest form of wit.
BT's current statement on what data should be
shared is now the following:
"As we said
at the PAC committee hearing, we are happy if councils wish to publish their
indicative coverage maps, even if they are heavily caveated at this stage. This
was a request from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and one
that we have been proactively supporting."
postcode data, until our very detailed survey work is complete there is no
definitive or accurate postcode data that can be provided. Any data available
now will undoubtedly change, so local authorities would have raised hopes only
to have dashed them. They would also have indicated that some areas may be left
out when it is too early to be certain."
So, is it time for me to hang up my pen and
leave the government and BT to get on with the BDUK project without seeking out
any more information?
Is it hell.
This is a tax payer funded scheme that affects
residents and business across the country. People should know whether they are
part of that scheme or not and other companies should be given the chance to
get involved, both with the project itself and to serve the areas which are set
to be missed out from the project - the latter of which should not have to wait
until 2017 when BT has finished up its build.
The data exists and is held by the DCMS, BT and
local authorities. I will not stop seeking out this information as I believe
with the above circumstances, it cannot be right the details stay secret.
I look forward to coming back to you, but maybe
I should have another week away to recover first... *grabs a Talisker*