Responding to last week’s National Audit Office (NAO) report that the Government’s programme to make superfast broadband available to 90% of premises in each area of the UK is running seriously behind schedule, the CWU has dismissed Governments efforts to pin much of the blame on late EU state aid approval.
With the project now expected to be delivered nearly two years later than the original target of May 2015, the CWU believes that insufficient UK Government commitment to the project, rather than foot-dragging by Brussels bureaucrats, is the real cause for the delay.
Demanding urgent action to bring the project back on track, CWU deputy general secretary Andy Kerr points out that, as things stand, economically vulnerable rural communities will continue to suffer from a devastating ‘digital divide’ until 2017 at the earliest.
“The fact that only nine out of 44 local projects are expected to reach their original target of providing 90% superfast coverage by May 2015 is a pretty pathetic reflection on a Government which talks a lot about the importance of Digital Britain yet is singularly failing to deliver,” said Andy.
“While it’s true that EU state aid approval came six months later than originally hoped for, this clearly accounts for only a very small part of what is effectively a two year delay – and the government is being disingenuous to try to suggest otherwise.
“The truth is that insufficient funding has been made available by the Government to attract any company other than BT to participate in this crucial national endeavour – yet the National Audit Office then goes on to bemoan a ‘lack of competition’ resulting from the fact that other potential suppliers withdrew from the bidding process – a decision those companies clearly made for their own commercial reasons.”
As a result, BT has been left as the only active participant in the programme and the NAO concedes that it is likely to win all 44 projects, to which the Government’s total contribution will be £1.2 billion. Yet the NAO’s statement continues that it has “secured only limited transparency over the costs in BT’s bids” and bemoans that it “does not have strong assurances that costs, take-up assumptions and the extent of contingency contained in BT’s bids are reasonable”.
Andy concludes: “The NAO can’t have it both ways – questioning the value for money from BT’s bids but at the same time criticising the fact that all of BT’s competitors have voluntarily walked away from the process.
“The fact is that BT is the only company prepared to make the necessary investment – taking on significant risk in the process – in order to deliver fast broadband services to rural areas, yet it is then being criticized by competitors, and now apparently the Government, for being too dominant!
“As far as we understand it, very little of the Government’s £1.2bn has been released to BT at this stage, whilst BT has contributed £500m to date and there are still many more contracts to be signed. In fact BT is likely to contribute around 38% of the total funds by the end of the programme, which is well above the 23% claimed in the report.
“You have to wonder what the NAO actually want of BT! The question that needs to be asked is why have BT’s competitors decided not to risk making investments of their own – relying instead on BT’s investment to take their own services to rural areas?
“Rural businesses and communities are crying out for faster broadband services, and superfast broadband infrastructure could be the ideal platform for economic recovery, growth and jobs in the UK if the Government gives it the attention it deserves. BT’s own investment is creating thousands of new long term, skilled jobs and apprenticeships which has been welcomed by the CWU.”
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