Worcestershire County Council’s plans to roll out superfast broadband as part of the BDUK project have been brought into question after the local authority admitted it would allow BT to overlap its network with existing locally funded services.
Worcestershire County Council has already put £700,000 towards Community Pathfinder Projects this year, with the aim of bringing faster broadband infrastructure to 200 business and 2,000 homes across 14 parishes in rural Worcestershire.
For this project Worcestershire County Council teamed with wireless broadband provider Airband, which has already provided speeds averaging 20Mbps – but reaching as high as 50Mbps – to over 250 customers as of July.
Connected areas remain on intervention list
However, in an FAQ posted by Worcestershire County Council on Facebook, the authority admitted these rural locations had not been removed from its “intervention area” list for its upcoming roll-out of superfast broadband with BT – part of the department for culture, media and sport’s BDUK project – which is being funded with £8.5m from the council, £3.35m from central government and £8.9m from BT.
“Worcestershire is the first authority in the UK to have community pathfinder projects which has already brought faster broadband to14 rural parishes through an investment of £700k from grant funding ahead of the Local Broadband Plan,” the council wrote.
“For these 14 parishes, Airband was the preferred supplier and the successful implementation has been widely publicised. Whilst these communities have access to much improved speeds, they were not removed from our intervention area for the countywide programme, therefore these communities may still receive the fibre-based solution.”
If Worcestershire County Council goes ahead with plans to roll-out to these areas, it could break EU state aid rules and its definitions of what areas should be targeted by publicly funded schemes, as well as depriving other areas in the county of funding for connectivity.
It could also go against guidance notes from BDUK, which state that open procurement processes must be “technology neutral”. This means that if the speeds needed by residents are reached through one technology – in this case wireless – they cannot decide to change them with public money just because they want a different solution.
A spokeswoman from Worcestershire County Council defended the plans and said: "Worcestershire County Council's Community Pathfinder projects and the county-wide broadband programme both comply with state aid requirements. As there were no commercial plans to provide a fibre broadband service in the community pathfinder areas, the county council followed appropriate guidance and the Pathfinder areas remain eligible for state aid for fibre coverage.
"We are committed to providing value for money for the taxpayer and delivering faster Broadband to as much as the county as possible with the funds available."
Computer Weekly contacted Airband for comment on the situation, but the company has not responded.
BDUK under scrutiny
The controversy comes at a time where the BDUK project is under scrutiny. Critics have argued the process has been too closed, with BT becoming the only accredited bidder for the 44 projects across the UK.
Local providers have also complained that BT and local councils haven’t published plans of which areas will get superfast broadband and which won’t, holding up any of their projects to fill in the gaps. This is despite pressure from the DCMS and its lead minister Maria Miller to publish the locations as soon as possible.
Computer Weekly is seeking out the information for all of the projects itself and is regularly updating its own article with any information it receives, which you can read here.