News that the government may be giving serious thought to a "last mile first" approach when it comes to spending public money on broadband projects emerged this week to a cautious response from industry.
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The government, through the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) and Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), is to set up a £20m fund for rural community broadband projects. The aim is to help end the digital and social divide faced by farmers, especially in upland areas.
Communications secretary Jeremy Hunt said the new fund would bring broadband to some of the most remote communities in England. "Remote and rural areas have the most to gain from access to broadband but these are the communities currently missing out," he said.
It is unclear who will disburse the money. BDUK, which is managing bids for the four rural pilot studies in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Scotland and Hereford, has said it will work through local county councils and development agencies.
This is wise, according to Lloyd Felton, director of County Broadband, a specialist community network supplier. "You'd have to question BDUK's ability to manage 3,000 rural broadband projects," he said.
Lloyd Felton added that local funders had to comply with strict standards before the money would come through. Projects had to show in detail how they fitted in with countrywide network schemes, who would benefit and what those benefits would be, plus lots of demographic and other detail.
"They don't have to do this for the whole county, but they do have to show how it fits in with the county plan," he said.
Some smaller network operators believe the procurement processes used by local authorities favours BT. They point to Cornwall, where BT was the only firm to submit a bid, and Lancashire, where bidders must prove £100m turnover to qualify.
Felton said BT clearly had a role to play. "But is it the only one that should?" he asked.
He added that it would be helpful to know which street cabinets would not form part of BT's £2.5bn next-generation broadband roll-out. Firms such as his could then plan with a degree of confidence their ability to achieve a fair payback without having to compete with BT.
Chris Conder, who runs a fibre and wireless community network in rural Lancaster, said the money should be spent on an innovative scheme in a rural area to prove what could be done once and for all.
"If the £750,000 for the Lancaster RDPE pilot had not been appropriated by the county for an urban scheme we would already have a rural community network up and running," she said. "I fear this £20m will go the same way as all the rest - straight into the hands of funders who don't understand physics, who will hand it over to the incumbent telco in the same way that Cornwall and Lancashire are doing."
Conder said the UK was falling behind competitor countries because the authorities were falling for the "myth" that copper could deliver next-generation access to all.
She predicted that the shortcomings of copper would be self-evident in a few years. "By then, the JFDI brigade will have started to prove their point," she said, citing a new network in Salkeld in Cumbria that was copying the Ashby de la Launde model. "These little community networks are the shining jewels in the crown and will show that cabinets have no place in a future digital Britain. Fibre is the answer."
Guy Jarvis, who runs NextGenUs and is installing a 100Mbps fibre/wireless network in Salkeld, Cumbria, said, "If funding helps to further FTTH [fibre to the home] faster for the rural areas where copper won't cut it, then this is good news. If the promise of funding serves to delay matters, create uncertainty and generally chill and distort the market, then it's a bad idea."
Independent Network Communities Association CEO Malcolm Corbett said local communities had been setting up their own broadband networks for a long time, but faced huge cost and difficulty in getting backhaul connections.
He described the initiatives as a genuine Big Society response to the problem, which had often achieved great results with very little resource.
Corbett said the £20m was welcome but a small amount compared to the scale of the rural broadband problem. "We hope that this funding will not lead to community initiatives being excluded from larger-scale funding through BDUK's wider programme," he said.