New DCMS minister releases evidence of BDUK failure

Maria Miller has acted fast to announce long overdue measures to remove some of the planning obstacles to the installation of new, lower cost, fibre networks. This is linked to the release of a BDUK progress schedule dated May 23 showing the sclerotic progress in bringing forward procurements using funds agreed the year before.  Meanwhile 400 homes in rural Appleton (Oxfordshire) have just acquired what is truly the Best Broadband in Europe – close to a gigabit both download and upload from Gigaclear, trunked by Cable and Wireless (who pulled out of the BDUK framework and are now part of Vodafone) to the London Internet Exchange.

The BDUK UK schedule indicates why so many MPs and Councillors are incandescent.

What is less clear is “what happens next?”  

Given that it is the Department of CULTURE, Media and Sport I remind those advising ministers of the fate of Macbeth when he took the view that:

“All causes shall give way, I am 

in blood steeped in so far, should I wade no more

Retreating were as tedious as go o’er”.

Andy Burnham may no longer be at DCMS but the constituency of the SNP spokesman for CMS, Peter Wishart, includes Dunsinane. 

My simplistic summary of the state of 50 or so projects which applied for BDUK funding as at May 23rd is: 2 on course, 5 with procurement under way, 4 with procurements due to start, 25 stuck in the treacle of the BDUK procurement framework, 4 bypassing the need for state aid clearance, 6 in negotiation (i.e.the councils had told BDUK they wanted the money to combine with other projects which did not fit the framework) and 5 withdrawn (i.e. they decided that the funding available was not worth the hassle). Little appears to have happened since then save that Birmingham got its EU go ahead in 10 weeks flat. 

Meanwhile the overall broadband scene has potentially been transformed by the success of the BT and Mobile infrastructure upgrades to handle the Olympics and the decisons of mobile operators to share their infrastructures, including their investments in “fibre to the femto”.  There is still a real possibility that the UK really good have “the best broadband in Europe” by 2015.  

It is unclear how many Councils still have available the funds they had at the start of 2011. More-over those which have not had to commit their balances elsewhere are concerned to use these to help them reduce their own service delivery costs, that means investing in PSN compatible network procurements to support shared service delivery.

I hope that the release of the BDUK progress report indicates that the new Minister is clearing the decks for a shared (with other departments including Treasury) infrastructure investment policy review. Reliable, resilient and ubiquitous broadband (both mobile and fixed) should be seen as one of the four cornerstones of a 21st century infrastructure. The other cornerstones are smart meters, smart grids and a smart standards regime.

But we also need consistant, compatible and predictable fiscal and regulatory regimes which create and preserve open markets which give good service to customers and fair rewards to those who make risk investments – without locking out innovative newcomers. Because unless we enlist market disciplines to compensate for regulatory failure we will indeed face the future of bandwidth and energy rationing for which officials at Ofcom, Ofgem, DCMS and DECC have been preparing.