Cash set aside for broadband development in urban areas is sitting idle thanks to EU bureaucracy, according to those overseeing the project. It’s likely that the £150 million, which was set aside for upgrading infrastructure to provide 80Mbps and up speeds, will instead be used to provide public wi-fi in city centres, for other projects that don’t require EU approval or, if the opposition Labour party get their way, redirected completely to provide access for rural areas.
The problem, very basically, is that the EU has rules about Governments doling out money for infrastructure projects. The EU requires any network funded by the state to be open access, in order to preserve competition, and for the solution to provide a significant improvement in generally available speeds and access, for the same reason.
Through continued consultation, the Fund could come up with a project which would please the EU but it’s unwilling to spend the time to do so. In the normal run of things an application for state aid takes 6 to 9 months and, given the numerous issues here, the Fund’s petition could take considerably longer.
Once they actually got to work, the Fund would likely miss their 2015 deadline for implementation. If investment in existing infrastructure is out the alternative appears to be big wi-fi projects or a voucher system.
However, just 7% of councils to be offered funding actually want to spend money on wi-fi according to NextGen themselves
. Vouchers also seem a bit of a stretch: the Welsh Government implemented them in 2010 to provide basic connections to the many households in the region with no access at all and the scheme is still going now but it’s hard to see how that would work for superfast. Most likely the benefits would go to businesses.
Another option is for at least some of the cash to go to rural areas and to individuals who, for various reasons, don’t have the necessary skills to get online.
"There are about 10 million people in the UK who don’t know how to send an email and around 16 million who don’t have other basic digital skills," Helen Goodman, Labour’s Shadow Culture Minister said, suggesting the plan. "A Labour government would switch half the money – £75m – from the super-connected cities programme to a digital inclusion programme. That could help some two million people get online."
Goodman also mentioned giving some of the cash to rural areas to belated get 2Mbps speeds to the last of UK households.
The debate on how Government money is best spent – on reducing digital exclusions or getting the very best infrastructure installed - is an interesting one. On one hand, it seems silly for the Government to pay for fibre the market will eventually provide. On the other, spending a huge amount of money getting out basic connections – there’s a reason these places have missed out before – seems pretty silly too.
As it is, however, the UK is doing neither effectively. The broadband shambles looks set to shamble on another day. Julia edits Choose.net, a UK consumer site that focuses on broadband. You can read their guide to UK fibre here.