Regional development agency delays £150,000 community broadband project

A regional development agency has withdrawn at least £150,000 in funding for a community broadband project and is refusing to disclose the reasons for the delay, citing commercial confidentiality.

A regional development agency has withheld at least £150,000 in funding for a community broadband project and is refusing to disclose the reasons for the delay, citing commercial confidentiality.

The South-East England Development Agency confirmed in February it had awarded £375,000 to four rural community projects in the south-east to increase their access to broadband.

The money, from the Rural Development Programme for England, was to go to Ewhurst and Surrey Hills, the Wealden Local Strategic Partnership, Hampshire County Council's Little London/Smannell project and Natural Enterprise on the Isle of Wight.

It would enable the villages to upgrade their existing broadband to ensure a minimum speed of 2Mbps, the South-East England Development Agency (Seeda) said at the time.

Ewhurst had found a preferred supplier, Vtesse Networks, which agreed to upgrade the lines between the street cabinets and homes.

But on 14 February, the day before Ewhurst representatives were due to meet Seeda project manager Jacquie Middleton to discuss how to pay the money, she cancelled the meeting without offering an explanation.

However, she wrote in an e-mail to the Ewhurst representatives: "There is a strong possibility that something will get announced over the course of the next few days which will affect our ability to fund your project. In which case it would be better to hold off having a discussion until that announcement has been made."

When Computer Weekly asked her why she cancelled the meeting, Middleton said she was under a non-disclosure agreement and referred enquiries to Seeda's operations manager, Robert Crawford, who declined a request for an interview.

Seeda's press officer had previously confirmed the awards and said: "We are currently negotiating the grants and contracts with all the successful bidders and discussions are at different stages; as these negotiations are commercially sensitive and therefore confidential, we are unable to comment further at this stage."

Contacted again 10 days later, the spokesman did not respond to queries about why the meeting with Ewhurst was cancelled, when Seeda would speak to Ewhurst, which suppliers it was negotiating with, or when it would release the money. The spokesman claiming these details were "commercially confidential".

Members of the Ewhurst project have been told unofficially BT will probably provide fibre to the village's street cabinets by March 2012, after previously being told the exchange that serves the village was not currently scheduled for upgrade.

BT said it is yet to announce its next phase of locations for fibre broadband, so could not confirm whether the Cranleigh exchange (which serves Ewhurst) is included in its future fibre deployment plans.

"We will be able to let you know which exchanges will be part of Phase 7 of our roll-out plans in the near future. Until then, it would be inappropriate to discuss which individual locations may or may not be included in these roll-out plans," said a BT spokesman.

However, visitors to a BT roadshow in Ewhurst on 15 February say they were told Openreach was about to announce the next phase of its £2.5bn fibre roll-out project within weeks.

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