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European Commission endorses UK broadband plans through 2020

The European Commission gives the thumbs up to the UK’s National Broadband Scheme, designed to extend next-generation broadband access as far as possible by 2020

The European Commission (EC) has endorsed the UK government’s plan to extend next-generation access (NGA) broadband technology across the country over the next four years, saying that the plans are compliant with European Union (EU) rules on state aid funding for broadband roll-out

The government notified Brussels of its plans on 21 April 2016 concerning the so-called National Broadband Scheme, which will form part of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).

The government said the scheme would increase coverage of high-speed broadband by supporting the roll-out of technology capable of delivering broadband speeds of more than 30Mbps, 6Mbps over the current definition of superfast.

European commissioner in charge of competition Margrethe Vestager said: “Today’s decision endorses UK plans to support the roll-out of high speed broadband infrastructure – it aims to bring faster internet to UK consumers and businesses in line with EU state aid rules.”

The EC’s state aid assessment is based on guidelines laid down three years ago, and is supposed to ensure fairness and equality throughout the procurement and deployment process. When BDUK was first set up, it had to meet similar obligations.

The EC said it was satisfied that the UK government will ensure public money is spent on areas where no NGA infrastructure currently exists and no private operator was willing to invest; that private operators would be involved in planning and consultation exercises; that Westminster will award state aid in compliance with EU procurement rules, respecting technological neutrality and facilitating bids from smaller, altnet operators; and that all interested operators would be able to access state-funded networks.

Vestager noted that the UK was already well above the EU average, with 91% of premises having access to speeds of more than 30Mbps, but said the country needed further investment in rural areas, where deployment is more costly and less likely to be a priority for operators, leading to market failure.

A ‘boost to broadband speeds’

The government said the EC’s announcement clearly supported its objective of making superfast speeds available to 95% of homes and businesses by the end of 2017.

It will also eliminate red tape for local authorities, which will not need to notify Brussels each time they want to run a broadband procurement, but instead will merely have to demonstrate compliance with the National Broadband Scheme to BDUK.

“Nine out of 10 homes and businesses in the UK can already get superfast broadband and we are reaching thousands more every week,” said digital economy minister Ed Vaizey.

“The commission’s decision will help us to reach more properties more quickly, bringing a welcome boost in broadband speeds to communities across the UK.”

Read more about broadband roll-out

Vaizey said the decision would be used to support the remaining BDUK procurements, as well as the £10m ultrafast broadband fund set up specifically for south-west England.

However, Tom Mockridge, CEO at BT’s rival Virgin Media, rubbished the EC’s decision.

“The government is doing the wrong thing using taxpayers’ money to subsidise BT when Virgin Media and many other operators are increasing the supply of superfast broadband with private capital,” he said.

He added that BT is “doing the wrong thing taking the money from a government borrowing £72bn this year”. BT declined to comment on the decision.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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Much will depend on how robust Ofcom is in ensuring genuinely open access by alternative providers to any networks built using state aid. The problem with the original BDUK scheme was that it transmogrified into single tender state aid for the incumbent. The claw back clauses demanded by the Commission mean that much of the central government (alias EU) funding will be recovered. But how much of that put up by the councils will also be recovered? And how much of what is recovered will be made available for investment in "future proof" (alias full fibre, fixed wireless and/or 4G) services to those who so far been excluded? HMG is, however, now in a renewed bind with the Treasury guarantee that could be called on to plug the hole re-opening in the BT pension fund. A new twist to the Brexit - Remain debate. Who do you trust most/least when it comes to fudging the books on state aid to BT? Whitehall or Brussells?
It's all part of a superfarce, Vaizey has fallen for the snake oil hype, and the millions who can't get 'superfast' anything are betrayed. And the EU has fallen for it too. All that is happening here is that BT is spending a fortune on football rights and not investing in the infrastructure needed for true NGA. They are just cherrypicking a few areas for FTTC, which is a stop gap technology. The hopes of a digital britain grow further away every day.