The Telegraph has gone with a headline that the "Government 'will not hit' broadband target", and underpinned this with a Freedom of Information Act request that indicates some 60 percent of local authorities are yet to start work on how they will fund the broadband work in their area. Over a quarter of authorities have had no contact with the BDUK.
One suspects that this lack of engagement with the central BDUK body, was behind the announcement yesterday of the deadline for submissions by councils. The BDUK allocations to the local authorities have been known for sometime, and one would like to hope that a lot of the delay is internal debates in councils who are trying to figure out how they can match fund broadband improvements in their area.
We have since the launch of the plans over twelve months ago, questioned the lack of detail in the plans, for example it seems the only technical guidance is that superfast is defined as something connecting at over 24 Mbps (we prefer to say 25 Mbps or faster), and that authorities should try and aim for 90% coverage at those speeds and where possible exceed the 2 Mbps USC for the remaining 10%.
The BDUK pilot schemes may be behind some of the slow progress, when the pilot schemes were launched an assumption was that these would provide a template for councils to follow, but with the pilots not having completed anything beyond progress reports, rather than service delivery, it is hard to draw a firm conclusion on the success and which technology mix works best.
It is worrying when you feel the need to agree with a politician, but when Ms Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for the digital infrastructure says the Government is "making the process up as it goes along", then unfortunately one has to agree. The process is not dead in the water, enough councils are proceeding slowly, but the speed of progress is such that other than some satellite subsidy schemes and non-BDUK related projects the majority of work that the public can touch and feel will be in 2014, with a lot of pressure applied as the current 2015 General Election date looms.
The Digital Britain report first appeared in June 2009 under the previous Labour Government and carried a 2 Mbps USC target for 2012 in it, and a 50p per month telephone line tax to create a fund of £170m to fund superfast broadband in the final third up to 2017. By the change of government in 2010, nothing much had progressed, and we then had a hiatus as the new coalition Government changed the plans and shifted the deadlines. A 2 Mbps USC for 2012, was in many ways not very ambitious, and most likely would have seen a sticking plaster type solution, with many deployments being replaced a year or two later as the levy fund started its deployment work.
So looking back, we don't think that Digital Britain as a vision is something that would differ significantly even with a completely different Government. Individually and across party boundaries there are politicians that get the infrastructure benefits that the new fourth utility can bring, but the economic situation and the general slowness of the political processes mean uncertainty broadband wise for many small businesses.
A question to pose to people is this, does it matter if the UK does not hit the 2015 target with respect to best broadband in Europe? Will the rush to meet the deadline create something akin to a film set, it looks great, but go behind the scenes and the trickery is revealed, i.e. looks good to outsiders, but reality is a different story.