Are BDUK projects really delayed by EU State Aid rules?
There has been a lot of discussion recently on the delays in getting BDUK funding schemes rolled out. Public procurement processes are never fast and whilst some councils may have mistakenly thought that by following the BDUK framework, EU State Aid approval was a simple rubber stamp process, others have planned for a significant delay. It is worth noting that approval of a plan by BDUK does not imply automatic approval from the EU either as each plan is assessed based on EU targets.
The Argus reports that the leader of East Sussex County Council apparently blames the European Commission for the delay in roll out of its broadband programme following its failure to sign off on the contract. However the county's own broadband plans which were published in February indicate that the State Aid public consultation would take place in June 2012 with final approval to be confirmed in October 2012, raising some questions over why the council was assigning responsibility for the timescale at the door of the EC.
The Argus coverage suggests some 40% of East Sussex will benefit from a 20 Mbps minimum service as part of the East Sussex broadband plan, but this does not seem to tally with the aims of the BDUK projects which aim for speeds over 24 Mbps (revised to 30 Mbps to help meet EU targets) to 90% of households. The 40% figure we suspect refers to the percentage of homes the plan will help, the immediate concern was that the council may have had a plan that was destined to not be approved. The actual plan when you read it is much clearer, and highlights the desire to meet the BDUK targets and to go well beyond this with the project running until 2017. The specific being aim that when finished all properties and businesses in East Sussex will have access to a 100 Mbps service. Also new build property projects should actually make use of full fibre (FTTP), as the most sensible thing to do.
Assuming State Aid approval is successful, East Sussex plan to announce the delivery partner contract winner in October 2012, with delivery work commencing in December.
There is a wider question to be asked on whether the complaints about EU delays are really justified, or whether they are merely a smokescreen for what would always have been a lengthy procurement processes. Perhaps the bigger problem is the lack of clear technical specifications, defining really what the various speed targets refer to. For example, is the EU 2020 target met by a VDSL2 service that can offer a variety of speeds based on distance to the cabinet, or must the minimum connection for ALL lines be 30 Mbps? This flaw also applies to BDUK project specifications. It's possible there was an expectation that the commercial market would exceed these targets by a large margin, rather than do the minimum to meet them.