BT has been accused of using “bullying tactics” to keep local authorities in line when negotiating rural broadband projects.
In a session with the House of Commons public accounts committee, Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, claimed the telecoms giant regularly pushed its weight around when it came to discussing the BDUK roll-out and threatened to push back deals unless it got its way.
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Corbett said: “One local authority that was mentioned on Monday to the secretary of state was very supportive [of a] £20m scheme designed to support innovative [local broadband] projects.
“That CEO was supportive, publicly said so, and then was told by BT if she continued to provide that public support, she would go to the bottom of the queue.”
Sources in the industry have told Computer Weekly this is not uncommon practice by BT, which was also accused of moving into areas where local broadband projects were already underway and telling residents to wait for it to build its own lines.
“BT doesn’t look like our big, friendly, cuddly telecom company,” said Corbett. “It looks much more akin to a predatory organisation [that is] going to go after [local providers and community projects] like a vampire death squid.”
During today’s evidence session with the committee, Sean Williams, group director of strategy, policy and portfolio at BT, denied the “unfounded allegations” of Corbett. Computer Weekly was yet to receive an official comment from the company after contacting BT for a response this afternoon.
The argument came as the parliamentary committee continued to debate the BDUK project rolling out broadband in Britain and if it was value for money.
A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) last week criticised the government’s handling of the scheme for not encouraging competition – BT has come out as the only provider accredited for each local project – and not keeping close enough checks on the budget it is spending.
Questions have also been raised over why BT will not reveal the exact areas its roll-out would cover.
It is set to provide broadband for 90% of the country, but the other 10% is expected to be made up from smaller, local projects. Those community organisations are complaining they cannot get to work until they know which areas are going to be missed, and neither BT or BDUK will publish such information.
Williams denied there was anything stopping the details from being published, but said it was “down to each local authority” to make the decision around if they wanted to share, not BT or BDUK.
“It will be matter for local authorities to decide,” he told the committee. “BDUK has access to all the plans [and] has a role in this as a very central policy maker [but] I think it is a matter for local government to choose what [to do].”
Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chair of the committee, was adamant the details should be made public, telling Williams: “Whoever has the authority should publish the 10% straight away. Your concept of transparency doesn’t make sense to us and you should have total transparency.”