David Cameron has asked BT to publish more details about its rural broadband roll-out plans so smaller telecoms firms can fill gaps in coverage.
During prime minister’s question time yesterday, Alan Reid, MP for Argyll and Bute, asked Cameron about the frustrations of people who cannot access superfast broadband because BT cannot tell them where it will be installed.
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“Bringing superfast broadband to rural areas is vitally important, and the government are rightly spending over £1bn on it, but my constituents are very frustrated that BT cannot tell them when, or even if, their home will be connected, which makes alternative planning impossible. Will the Prime Minister tell BT to produce clear plans for the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money it is getting?” said Reid.
Cameron defended BT’s role in the expansion of superfast broadband, but acknowledged the telecoms giant must provide more information.
“I have had this discussion with BT, and I am happy to hold it again. We have asked BT to give more detail in their roll-out plans about which homes and areas will get broadband so that other companies and organisations are then able to see whether there are different ways of filling any gaps,” he said.
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“However, I do not agree with some who think that BT has somehow not been putting its shoulder to the wheel. A massive investment is going into broadband: 10,000 homes and businesses are being connected every week. This is a real success story for our country.”
However, BT told Computer Weekly that it is not responsible for providing the roll-out data, and that because it is contracted by local authorities, it is up to those councils to release the information.
“We are pleased that the Prime Minister has acknowledged the success of the BDUK programme and the good progress that’s being made up and down the country. On the subject of roll-out plans, it is up to each local body to decide whether to publish maps illustrating the indicative roll out plan for the area," said a BT spokeswoman.
“Most have already done so and we continue to support those remaining councils who intend to publish more details over the coming weeks. New locations to benefit from the BDUK programme are being revealed by BT and its partners every week. This activity will continue to ramp up as the roll-out progresses and survey work is completed.”
BT has been widely criticised over its involvement in the BDUK programme, in which £1.2bn of public money was awarded to local councils to extend superfast broadband to rural areas. BT won all 44 council contracts, and rival rural broadband providers have complained that the lack of detailed information about BT’s roll-out plans in those areas means they are unable to install fibre connectivity to fill the gaps.
In villages such as Dolphinhome in Lancashire, for example, rural telecoms firms claim BT and local councils have announced roll-out plans for areas previously believed to be outside the BDUK project, thereby preventing them from obtaining grants or offering rival services.
Earlier this week MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the government for giving every BDUK contract to BT, and failing to deliver meaningful competition for the £1.2bn in funds.
“Despite our warnings last September, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has allowed poor cost transparency and the lack of detailed broadband roll-out plans to create conditions whereby alternative suppliers may be crowded out,” said PAC chair Margaret Hodge.
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - which is responsible for the BDUK programme - said: “We have made clear to BT and local authorities, on more than one occasion, that we believe that seven-digit postcode level maps should be made available and strongly encourage their publication. It remains the responsibility of each local body to develop and publish this information - many have already done so and we expect the others to do so in the near future.”