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UK's rural broadband scheme cops another kicking

And there is much to criticise. Not only has the tendering process and conditions been so disadvantageous that only the incumbent, BT, is still in the running (not good for competition), but the end-result - the hoped for super-fast broadband-energised rural scene looks to be a fair way off still - despite the hundreds of millions already spent.

The culprits, of course, are not BT but the scheme's responsible parents - Ofcom and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (yes, we think it's a weird assemblage too) which recently admitted that the process it was overseeing was unlikely to meet its objective of bringing coverage to 90 per cent of the rural population by 2015. 'Broadband' by the way apparently kicks in at 2Mbit/s.

Now the Audit Office has also put its boot in: criticising the process by which the money was being spent and the improvements being made (or not) and - as is the way with an auditor - finding fault with the financial transparency of the whole thing.

In other words, it's hard for the auditors (and therefore anyone) to know whether the public is getting value for money out of BT's rural broadband efforts because it doesn't have the data.

The original rural broadband subsidy idea was to identify the rural 'notspot' areas (where broadband coverage was light to non-existant). That translated into 44 areas and 44 local authority contracts to be assigned to the winning telcos. So far BT has won 26 of the 44 contracts (the final remaining competitor, Fujitsu, recently pulled out) and only nine of the 26 contracts will have completed by 2015.

It was supposed to be so different - a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel - involving a range of happily competing telcos, all vying to win the rural broadband business, sweetened by government money.

But BT's competitors complained from the start, as we reported earlier this year, "that the entire, convoluted, tendering process and the deployment conditions laid down by the government, favoured British Telecom from the very start and that the much-vaunted claims of creating a competitive environment for the deployment of rural broadband were no more than window-dressing to disguise the fact that the incumbent would get the tasty, meaty morsels and its rivals would get the gristle and bone."

According to Chris Smedley, chief executive of broadband network provider, Geo, and at one time potential participant in the project, the initiative utterly failed. Instead of enabling a fibre equivalent to local loop unbundling, the 'big idea' for the project - so-called Passive Infrastructure Access (PIA) - which should have provided a level playing field by giving competitors access to BT's ducts and poles, was delivered a major kick in the groin by being limited to residential broadband. No business customers allowed.

Without the business customers to sweeten the pot, the sums just couldn't be made to work, claimed Smedley.

Exit, stage left.

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