MPs have criticised the government's broadband delivery unit for not being vigilant enough to deliver its own superfast broadband coverage targets.
Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chair Margaret Hodge, MP said there are still pockets within rural areas without broadband, and recent surveys found only 16% of rural small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) have access to superfast broadband, while half are not satisfied with the service they have.
Chris Townsend, CEO of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), told the PAC hearing the project is committed to delivering the target of 95% coverage by the end of 2017.
Hodge pointed out that several case studies were presented highlighting instances of small businesses which are not yet covered by the superfast rollout, with one businesses owner stating, “BT do not think it is important enough to upgrade this area because we are remote.”
Townsend said that to accommodate small business owners, such as farmers in rural areas, the project aims to provide a universal service commitment of 100% broadband access, meaning by the end of 2015 speeds of up to 2Mbps will be available to everyone.
According to Townsend, this would be enough to perform applications for the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Single Payment Scheme, which from this month has to be done online.
Sue Owen, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, told the committee that in most rural area cases cost is still a concern, and as the project is still in its second phase the focus is on upgrading areas with most value.
She said the return on investment per pound spent is less in rural areas, and that the third phase of the project will look at finding ways of providing coverage for these last few areas, as fibre broadband may not be a cost-effective solution.
Several trials are underway to find new ways of providing appropriate speeds to rural areas, such as satellite-provided Wi-Fi, and eight projects are in place to test different technologies to target the remaining 5% in the final phase of the rollout.
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But the costs of the programme are still not transparent because doing so means BT would have to reveal its own cost structure, and renegotiating the contract to allow transparency would have slowed development.
When speaking about the introduction of 5G networks, Ed Ellis, responsible for network strategy and forecasting at EE, predicted that as mobile networks become faster, residents in rural areas of the UK will prefer to use mobile networks for services such as video streaming, because in some cases they will be faster and more reliable than wired broadband.
But although average broadband speeds in the UK grew by more than 30% year-on-year in 2014 after BDUK began to bear some fruit, speeds in the UK are failing to keep pace with those of its continental neighbours, according to the latest quarterly State of the Internet report, produced by Akamai.
This PAC meeting was the latest in a series of hearings on rural broadband, organised because each time the MPs felt they were not provided sufficient information by witnesses such as BDUK and BT. Hodge said the topic would have to be revisited again, as the organisations involved “still have to convince us this is value for money.”