The BDUK postcode debacle and how it is driving me to drink...

Yesterday, I returned to work after a lovely week away in the beautiful Peak District with my boyfriend, full of country walks, textile museums and a fair few whiskeys at some of the best rural pubs in the country – I would highly recommend the Kings Head to anyone who ends up in Bonsall, by the way.

But before I had even finished my first cup of tea back at my desk, the on-going BDUK saga took yet another turn that made me spit my hot brew all over my laptop (don’t worry boss, everything is in working order).

As readers of this blog will know, I have been seeking out the postcode data for this project detailing where the roll-out of superfast broadband would be going and which areas would be left out. Again, as anyone following the story will be aware, this has been a far from easy task.

Since I began the investigation in July, not one council has offered me a list of the postcodes – even when I have submitted Freedom of Information requests – that both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and BT confirmed existed, as they were drawn up for when each contract was signed.

Some have claimed they don’t have the postcode lists, others have denied it is in the public interest for them to be published, but most worryingly of all for a scheme that is funded by the tax payer, a number have said they cannot release the data as it is commercially sensitive to BT.

I have continued to push the local authorities through more FOIs and complaints as the DCMS and BT have said ever since the famed public accounts committee back in July that they were happy for this data to be made public.

Take this exchange between the chair of the committee, Margaret Hodge MP, Sean Williams, head of group director of strategy, policy and portfolio for BT, and Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA).

Margaret Hodge: Is it true that, in your contracts with local authorities, you are preventing local authority officers from raising any concerns publicly or discussing their contractual arrangements with other local authorities? Is that true or not true?

Sean Williams: No, it is not true.

Malcolm Corbett: What about the non-disclosure agreements?

Sean Williams: Can I deal with that, because it was a theme in the remarks earlier? Every local authority, when we sign a contract, has an outline plan, which specifies to the level of individual postcodes where the likely BDUK footprint will be. Local communities can then ask the local authority, “Is my area covered in the BDUK footprint or not?” Local authorities will give them the answer.

That process is currently working. It has worked successfully for Rothbury in Northumberland. It is being used successfully for probably dozens of other RCBF bids at the present time. That is a fact.

Malcolm Corbett: Members of INCA have put in freedom of information requests to a number of local authorities to get speed and coverage templates that cover the whole county so that you can identify where the roll-out will be, over what time scale, and those areas where there will not be roll-out-the final 10%. We have put in freedom of information requests and they have all come back saying, “This is commercially confidential information that cannot be released”.

I cannot see how it can possibly be in the public interest that our money is being spent in this way without us knowing where the money will be spent and where it will not be spent so that communities can take alternative action.

Sean Williams: We have suggested to the Department and BDUK that they should be published at that point.

Seems pretty clear, yes? But even the best of us can doubt ourselves, and as local authorities continued to say no and even more cited the ‘commercial interests’ reason for keeping schtum, I continued to check with representatives at both BT and the DCMS to confirm they were happy for this data to be published.

And they continued to say yes. Take this response I got from a BT spokesman in September when I asked specifically about whether the postcodes could be published…

“As you say, BT has said on record several times that it has no issue with this data being released. Our position remains the same as it did at the PAC hearing and we’ve been very clear on that. The information on the intended BDUK intervention areas is available to Local Bodies and it’s a matter for them to decide whether they publish it.”

But, here we are in November and apparently I have been getting it wrong all this time. Yesterday at a meeting in central London, my colleague asked Bill Murphy, managing director of next-generation access for BT, whether the postcodes could be published and he flat out said no. Why? Well, because of commercial interests of course…

“It’s commercially sensitive information,” said Murphy. “You can publish [coverage] maps and most councils are doing that… [but] you never know until you get there. We have a plan and a view but you do not know until you do the surveys and build and it is subject to change.”

Unsurprisingly, we at Computer Weekly were shocked. After months of saying over and over again it was fine for the data to be published and several sources behind closed doors insinuating it was the councils holding everything up, BT had now changed their tune. So we wrote the story.

Cue an email from a BT press officer, complaining about the story and adding: “At no point has BT said that it’s happy for postcode data to be published.”

I won’t lie; there may be a dent in my desk from where I felt the need to smack my head against it several times. An exchange ensued where I sent said press officer the correspondence and the details of the public accounts committee as I shared with you above.

The final email I received was as close as I think we will get to an acknowledgement, and it really isn’t very close…

“There appears to be some confusion as my understanding is that our comments at the PAC always referred to draft, indicative plans being published by councils and not individual postcode data for the reasons explained in my previous email. You’ve probably seen that many councils have now published the draft plans on their website.”

“I’m sorry for any confusion, however, and can see why you’ve written this up as a story if that was your impression. “

So there you go guys and gals, I am afraid this was all in my pretty little head and I have just been a confused journalist reading reports, conducting interviews, checking facts, making calls and submitting FOI requests to get an ‘impression’ – in case you don’t know me well, I see sarcasm as the highest form of wit.

BT’s current statement on what data should be shared is now the following:

“As we said at the PAC committee hearing, we are happy if councils wish to publish their indicative coverage maps, even if they are heavily caveated at this stage. This was a request from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and one that we have been proactively supporting.”

“As for postcode data, until our very detailed survey work is complete there is no definitive or accurate postcode data that can be provided. Any data available now will undoubtedly change, so local authorities would have raised hopes only to have dashed them. They would also have indicated that some areas may be left out when it is too early to be certain.”

So, is it time for me to hang up my pen and leave the government and BT to get on with the BDUK project without seeking out any more information?

Is it hell.

This is a tax payer funded scheme that affects residents and business across the country. People should know whether they are part of that scheme or not and other companies should be given the chance to get involved, both with the project itself and to serve the areas which are set to be missed out from the project – the latter of which should not have to wait until 2017 when BT has finished up its build.

The data exists and is held by the DCMS, BT and local authorities. I will not stop seeking out this information as I believe with the above circumstances, it cannot be right the details stay secret.

I look forward to coming back to you, but maybe I should have another week away to recover first… *grabs a Talisker*

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