MPs vent rural broadband frustration

THE chief executive of Broadband Delivery UK has come under fire from MPs over the company's failure to meet rural internet access targets.

Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) is the company set up to manage delivery of the government's broadband strategy and the roll-out of broadband in rural areas.

The government's ambition is to provide everyone in the UK with access to broadband with a download speed of at least 2 megabits per second (Mbps).

It also aims to provide 90% of the UK with 'superfast broadband' (at least 24Mbps).

BDUK chief executive Chris Townsend appeared before MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Wednesday (10 December). A transcript of the evidence session is available here.

Committee chairman Anne McIntosh asked Mr Townsend why her constituency of Thirsk and Malton would reach only 82% rather than the 90% target.

Mr Townsend said: "The UK is very complicated in terms of geography, topography and all of the other critical issues."

He added: "There is quite a wide variation from one local body to another. At the end of phase one, some local bodies will be in the high 70s; others will be in the high 90s.

Phase two, which would kick off in 2016, who see a minimum of 90% in each of the local body areas, said Mr Townsend.

"Our average by the end of phase 2 at the end of 2017 will be 95%. We are looking to have a minimum threshold of 90% for each of the local bodies."

Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish asked why only 8% was covered in his own constituency.

"I have lots of villages being excluded. They are in the Blackdown hills: Upottery, Smeatharpe—a whole load; I could name them all for you.

"We are just totally fed up – I personally am fed up – with the way that BDUK is delivering."

Mr Townsend responded by saying he was "very sympathetic" to rural communities.

Insisting that BDUK was delivering against phase one and phase two, Mr Townsend then said a third phase would look at delivering broadband to the remaining 5%.

He added: "It is extremely difficult to get to some of these hard-to-reach villages and rural areas. I have every sympathy with what you say."

Rural campaigners said MPs were right to subject BDUK to robust questioning.

Charles Trotman, senior business and economics adviser for the Country Land and Business Association, said: "BDUK must do better.

"They have failed to meet contracted targets for 90% coverage by 2015.

"It is frustrating because the target itself is not ambitious enough, in terms of coverage or speed of internet to be provided and they have not even met it.

"Every week that goes by thousands of homes and businesses across the countryside are being held back by lack of access to broadband."

Dr Trotman said BDUK was right to consider alternative technologies such as satellite to deliver access in the most remote rural areas.

But it was wrong to do so through an exclusive contract and taxpayer subsidy to just one provider.

"The quickest, fairest and most cost-effective solution is the voucher scheme piloted in Wales to offer those living and working in the countryside a grant to buy a satellite solution."


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