The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) today claimed the need for Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) to be transparent outweighed BT’s commercial interests when it came to the broadband project.
In July 2013, Sean Williams, group director of strategy, policy and portfolio at BT, told a Public Accounts Committee hearing his firm had no issue with local authorities publishing details of where the broadband roll-out would take place on a postcode level.
Confronted with this information, BT changed its position in November, when its managing director of next-generation access, Bill Murphy, admitted his firm didn’t want councils releasing the postcode data.
Yet the DCMS remained quiet on the issue, until this morning.
Speaking at a Westminster eForum event, Simon Towler, head of telecommunications policy at DCMS, responded to Computer Weekly’s question on why BT’s commercial interests were being put above those of interested parties, including residents, local businesses and alternative providers, by claiming its position was transparency first.
BT's current statement on the publication of postcode data
"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."
“Obviously we don’t think BT’s commercial interests are more important than those factors,” he said. “BT does have legitimate commercial interest and legitimate business secrets to maintain, but we try to promote as much transparency and as much availability of data.”
Towler said his department had “encouraged” BT to provide the information, but admitted it may not have gone far enough.
“We encourage BT to provide as much information of where the intervention areas are going to be as early as possible,” he added. “It’s a complicated business on the ground to do the individual mapping of particular areas but it is a fair challenge to say that is an area where we can do better.”
However, the deputy director concluded in the defence of the DCMS, adding: “I do not accept the premise that we put BT’s commercial interests above the needs of everybody else.”
The main problem that comes from the lack of postcode data is for the most rural areas of the UK – namely the last 10% that won’t be served by the main BDUK roll-out.
A total of £20m was put forward by the government under the umbrella of the Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) to encourage alternative providers to form plans for covering the hard to reach locations with their own connectivity solutions. However, EU State Aid rules say funding cannot be given to projects that will build over existing publicly funded schemes.
Read more about BDUK
Without BT revealing where the contracts it has signed with local authorities will cover, alternative providers cannot receive funding and may have to wait until the end of the BDUK roll-out – up to 2017 – before they can get started.
Yesterday, the government announced a new competitive fund of £10m to test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas of the UK.
“Options may include enhanced mobile services, new fixed technologies and alternative approaches to structuring financial support, working closely with the communications industry," said the announcement.
Towler said this money was new funding, not siphoned off from the RCBF, and it would launch in early 2014. However, when pushed for more details, all he would reveal was there would be more announcements “soon".
We asked BT whether this would be something they would want to get involved in, but a spokeswoman said they didn’t have enough detail on the scheme to comment yet.
Click here for all the responses we have had from local authorities regarding the BDUK.
Click here for all the data made available so far on the roll-out areas.