BT criticised for ‘knocking out competition’ in Wiltshire

BT and Wiltshire County Council have been accused of using public funds to build out broadband in areas set to be served by alternative providers

The use of public funding for rural broadband has again been brought into question after BT and Wiltshire County Council were today accused of building over existing plans by commercial providers.

A local project had been embarked on by Gigaclear to provide superfast broadband to homes in some of the most remote areas in the county.

By the end of 2013, the firm had signed up over 80% of the residents needed to make the project commercially viable and was embarking on the final stages before building out the network.

However, after claiming to have been "reassured" that no public money would be going into these areas as part of the national BDUK project to connect rural communities, Wiltshire County Council then announced the villages set to be covered by Gigaclear were now at the top of its list to be served by BT's network.

Within six hours, Gigaclear pulled out of the project it had been working on with local residents, saying it could not compete with a publicly funded project.

Speaking to Radio 4's You and Yours programme today, Matthew Hare, CEO of Gigaclear, said: "We are not in the business of competing with taxpayer pounds. If a competitor is given taxpayers' money, it is an uneven playing field and we cannot get the return for our investors. We are financially driven and competing against taxpayer-funded business doesn't cut it.

"If [Wiltshire County Council] had already got to the end of the rest of the upgrade and those were the last villages in the county, which we hadn't lived up to serving, I would understand, but bluntly, they put the ones we were marketing at to the front of the programme."

A statement from BT said it was Wiltshire that had decided on the build out areas and the fact that its network would be available on wholesale to other providers meant competition remained strong.

"It would not be appropriate for BT to comment on a commercial decision by Gigaclear," it said. "Wiltshire Council identified the Dun Valley as being in the intervention area following a public consultation run by the council so it's not for BT to comment on why these locations were included."

However, Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chair of the Public Accounts Committee that has been looking into the BDUK project, accused the telecoms giant of trying to keep hold of its monopoly.

"This is a typical case," said Hodge. "We have heard similar in Suffolk and Cumbria, for example, where BT and the county councils do not release significant detailed data about what areas will be covered by the subsidised BT programme or speeds that will be achieved. People then go ahead and try to find alternatives, as we all need and want superfast broadband, then just as they are about to go ahead, in comes BT and says we are going to provide it, knocking out competition and allowing BT to hold its monopoly.

"They are not publishing the detailed data required. This is £1.2bn of public money, and nobody objects to that, but if it is being used to cut out competition where commercial firms are happy to roll out without public subsidy it is wrong. What we want is much better transparency from BT and from county councils so other competitors can come in."

We want much better transparency from BT and county councils about superfast broadband provision so other competitors can come in

Margaret Hodge, Public Accounts Committee

BT responded, adding: "BT is working with the council to make high-speed fibre broadband as widely available as possible in the intervention area. The locations to benefit are being announced in phases following detailed planning and survey work, so the council and BT are being fully transparent about the plans."

Computer Weekly contacted Wiltshire County Council for comment, but it had not returned our request at the time of publication. 

The accusations mirrored those made against BT and Lancashire County Council, as reported by Computer Weekly two weeks ago. They were accused of planning to build over areas already targeted by local provider B4RN, which claimed to have told the council all along that it had earmarked those areas for a local project.

Both BT and Lancashire County Council denied the claims and said the alternative provider had not made its plans clear or in a timely fashion to be incorporated into the planning process of the BDUK project.

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