One of the key points to arise at the Public Accounts Committee meeting was the blocking of RCBF project funding as the projects were not able to get any certainty on coverage areas, with the very recent signing of the BDUK contract between Oxfordshire County Council and BT it appears that two RCBF projects in rural Oxfordshire are a lot closer to delivering real connectivity.
The two projects are Cotswold Broadband (aim to serve 5,000 premises) and Northmoor, Moreton & Bablockhythe covering around 480 premises.
"This is really great news as it allows us all to move forward to complete the picture of superfast broadband in our part of West Oxfordshire. The communities we represent are not content with sub-standard communications and this agreement takes us closer to bringing economic and social benefits to the area."Hugo Pickering, CEO of the Cotswolds Broadband project
Anyone who has been involved in Government procurement will be well used to this method of doing businesses, where you have to wait for other pieces of a puzzle to fall in place before you can continue. The BDUK process and everything really since the Digital Britain report in 2009 has been a procurement exercise, but one where the commercial market failure the scheme was addressing had not actually taken place, just a pledge that they would stop at 50% (Virgin Media) and 66% (BT) coverage. It is this overlapping of phases that is making life so difficult, but with the pressure to roll-out everything yesterday, there is no time to actually wait and for true market failure to occur. We believe that all the BDUK money is doing to knocking a number of years off of the timescale in which BT would have eventually rolled out FTTC (with the fibre on demand option) to 90% of the UK from a date of 2020 to 2015 (88% in May 2015 is NAO estimate).
Handing public money as a subsidy to a PLC is never a brilliant idea, but if the highly paid consultants are correct and that the millions of pounds of public money being spent will create thousands of jobs and be worth billions to the economy the question must be, why are we not spending even more to get an even bigger return?
What we can be certain of is the UK habit of celebrating failure, rather than emphasising the success is winning the battle for press coverage at present. The real danger of this type of coverage is that smaller projects and the number of commercial operators delivering Gigabit solutions will be swamped and the myth that it is BT or nothing will continue.
Update 1pm: At the request of Oxfordshire County Council, we have removed the phrase " The County Council has now agreed that funds for these via the RCBF scheme can proceed", which was based on the original Cotswold Broadband statement issued on Monday 12th August.
"With the approval of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and the Department for the Environment, Farming, & Rural Affairs (Defra), the County Council agreed that the bids for funding via the Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) could proceed so that they can together deliver true superfast broadband to 100% of the households and businesses in their respective areas."Extract from original press release by Cotswold Broadband
The council said the following: "The county council does not control RCBF funding and is not able to “agree” how it is allocated, as that is a matter for Defra".
While the council is correct in our view that it does not control the funding, it does have a part to play in the RCBF projects, or did the Culture Secretary Maria Miller MP get it wrong in her recent letter to local councils. The reality is probably that the projects were waiting on solid enough coverage information that the project could proceed, so while the County Council does not control the funding, until the information to avoid large overlaps between the main BDUK project and the smaller RCBF scheme was provided any funding application via Defra was on hold.