I strongly advise those planning to attend the Public Accounts Committee hearing on Rural Broadband this afternoon to take plenty of bottled water. It will be like the Black hole of Calcutta this afternoon in Committee Room 15 of the House of Commons. Unless you have a rather better heat tolerance than myself, you might prefer to watch on the Parliamentary TV channel. It would be a splendid irony if we discover this service is not up to handling a mass audience and even those in urban areas are blindsided until the transcript is available.
In the mean time I understand that the meeting on Monday to begin the long overdue process of publicly defining the “final 10%” which will need state aid went well.
Apparently those present from the community broadband side were happy to agree with the DCMS statement that:
This was a constructive meeting between the Secretary of State, BT and the most advanced community-led rural broadband schemes. It was agreed that all parties would work together, along with local authorities, to ensure that projects applying for the Rural Community Broadband Fund could co-exist happily alongside the wider rural broadband scheme, being led by BT.
The Government is clear that there is a range of options for the delivery of superfast broadband to the hardest parts to reach of the UK. The recently announced £250 million extra funding will ensure that superfast broadband can reach 95 per cent of premises by 2017.
They felt that Maria Miller was determined that the Regional Community Broadband Fund projects should go ahead alongside the main BDUK rural programme and said she was tasking her officials to make sure that the roadblocks are removed.
I was told that the local projects all played their part really well: they are pilots of up to a few thousand homes and businesses, with well worked out plans to deliver FTTH to 100% of their rural communities needing state aid ranging from 25% to 40%. Very different from what BT requires in the same areas (89% or higher). It was also said that they have got their communities on board and are bringing in additional private investment.
The community broadband operators raised other key issues like overbuilding of competitors and transparency over BT’s plans and the final 10%, but ran out of time. They expected progress on the transparency issue and to subsequently be able to take other issues into discussions with officials.
Overall they felt the meeting was an important step towards creating a more competitive environment for next generation broadband deployment.
If so, I am reinforced in my view that Maria Miller would make an excellent Secretary of State for Infrastructure (when DCMS and DECC are finally merged and the “Creative Industries” are given to BIS). To paraphrase Mrs Thatcher: “Ask a man to do something and he makes a speach. Ask a woman and she does it.” I am particularly pleased to note a firm intention to help the players move from confrontation to at least co-existance – albeit I would prefer to see full-blown co-opetition.