Lancashire County Council (LCC) is to tender for a single network operator to provide a £40m county-wide superfast broadband service by mid-2013.
LCC hopes that over the next 10 years its new network will boost the local economy by £3bn, attract private investment worth £4bn, create nearly 40,000 new jobs including 15,000 in higher-value sectors, and make Lancashire a "destination of choice" for businesses, investors, visitors, students and residents.
According to a report accepted by the LCC on 26 January, the winner will have to cover the entire county and to match £20m in funding that LCC hopes to receive from the England Rural Development Programme (ERDP).
LCC said "market forces" were unlikely to deliver superfast broadband to around 34% of Lancashire premises. "The impact of this will be most acute in our rural and harder to reach communities. This means that a significant proportion of Lancashire businesses and citizens would otherwise be unable to exploit the transformational benefits of superfast broadband," it said.
The report called for "deployment of a superfast broadband network that delivers optimum coverage for the available investment funding, aiming for close to 100% coverage in Lancashire, including rural, remote and sparsely populated areas" without defining preferred technology, target speeds or performance criteria.
The county council said it would ask potential partners "to identify the extent to which existing technology in Lancashire, eg the Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online (Cleo) network, can be utilised and the benefits, without having an impact on the services it already provides."
Critics are concerned, however, that the scope and scale of the tender would inevitably favour a large operator such as BT over local community initiatives.
Barry Forde, an independent consultant who designed the Cleo network and is helping praised recently by ministers, said the tender favoured BT because of the requirement to cover the entire county. This was because the only local access links in the rural areas, which contain 34% of premises, are owned by BT, and the winner would have to pay BT to rent them.
The requirement for £20m in matching funds put it beyond the reach of smaller network operators, especially those owned by local communities, many of which are keen to have fibre to the home (FTTH), he added.
Forde is an advocate of community networks as a way to provide villagers with cheap access to faster broadband. He is leading a bid, through Lancaster City Council, for a £750,000 ERDP grant to provide fibre links to two Lancashire villages.
He is concerned that this bid, although far advanced, may be eclipsed by events at the county council. If this were to happen, the likelihood of these villages getting access to high-speed FTTH broadband was "debatable", he claimed.
Forde said that LCC had separately formed a joint venture with BT Global Services, following a tender for a strategic partner to work with LCC on IT and networking support and procurement,
A BT spokesman said it had announced such negotiations with LCC last October but nothing had been signed. However, three community networks that depend on Cleo for backhaul have been told their service will terminate on 13 February unless they agree to transfer to LCC's chosen operator, with prices guaranteed for a year.
Forde said that in his opinion, LCC wanted "to award the contract for rural NGA [next-generation access] support to this JVC [joint venture company], but cannot just do this without falling foul of a number of procurement rules."
Forde said he had asked the man in charge of LCC's tender, Eddie Sutton, if LCC would exclude the JVC from the bidding for the £40m county broadband service, given that it was already working inside the county and could potentially have access to insider information.
"He said that he saw no reason why, just because BT was already working with the council, they should be excluded from the process," Forde said.
Sutton referred Computer Weekly to LCC's press office, which he said would make contact, but at the time of publication we have not yet heard from LCC.
Chris Conder, a campaigner for community-run broadband networks and a critic of BT's FTTC plans, said there was no reason ERDP money meant for specific rural broadband projects should go to larger, less targeted initiatives.
"BT has already indicated those areas that will not be covered in its next-generation access roll-out, even with public money, so those communities should be allowed to get on and do it for themselves," she said.