The Broadband Delivery (BDUK) superfast broadband roll-out may be in full swing, but research conducted by the County Councils Network (CCN) has suggested 45% of county councils in England doubt their ability to reach the government-mandated target of 95% coverage by 2017.
The CCN – a cross-party coalition representing 37 English county councils and unitary authorities covering 23 million people – said councils risked being unable to achieve the estimated £35bn worth of economic growth that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) believes is possible from improved rural connectivity.
While 81% of authorities said they saw the gap between urban and rural broadband coverage narrowing, and 90% praised the effectiveness of their working relationships with BT, many still had concerns regarding the value and transparency of the superfast broadband programme.
Only 29% said they thought the BDUK delivery process and market were sufficiently competitive and 65% said that the commercial confidentiality in the BDUK contracts was preventing them from demonstrating how they were getting best value from their investment in the scheme backed by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.
CCN infrastructure spokesman Martin Hill said councils were pulling out all the stops to get rural communities connected to superfast broadband, with an average spending commitment per authority of £5.5m in phase one.
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However, he said, even though the programme was on the right track, it needed to be “more flexible and transparent to ensure our goals are met”, particularly with regard to the cost of connecting the final 5%.
“We also need schemes like Broadband Connectivity Vouchers to move out of cities and support businesses in our communities,” said Hill. “The UK economy cannot afford a two speed digital landscape.”
BDUK CEO Chris Townsend told a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing that he was still confident of achieving 95% coverage within the timescale set out.
MPs had criticised BDUK for not being vigilant enough over delivery of its coverage targets, with committee chair Margaret Hodge saying only 16% of rural small and medium-sized enterprises had superfast access, and half of those were not satisfied with what they had.
Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne has set out plans to go beyond the 24Mbps target for superfast broadband laid down by BDUK, saying in his 2015 Budget speech that he wanted to begin roll-out of 100Mbps speeds, although he gave no indication of when that project might start.
However, even 100Mbps broadband has been criticised as too slow to meet future needs.