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Altnets respond to PAC rural broadband criticism

Wednesday, April 2nd 2014 by Hannah Langston

Three key players in rural broadband have backed a powerful Parliamentary committee’s scathing report on the government handling of its £1.2billion rural broadband programme.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the way the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has managed the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme, with all of the money so far awarded only to BT.

The report’s conclusions were backed by representatives of organisations and companies which work to connect rural communities.

Christine Conder, a founding member of Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), said: “Today’s report reiterates what rural campaigns like B4RN have been saying for years. It’s great that these messages are now getting national press coverage but we need to see some action.

“Hopefully this report means that significant changes are in the pipeline that will allow consumers to have real choice instead of the monopoly we have now,” she said.

The Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA) supported the call for DCMS to improve competition: “Simply providing the additional cash to BT is not a good option and is likely to lead to challenges under the state aid rules.

“This will result in further delays to a programme that is already two years behind schedule,” the group said in a statement.

“Government and local authorities must also make sure that alternative schemes, pulling in additional private sector and community funding, are supported not stymied.

“Allowing BT to use state funding to undermine competitors is not in the interests of rural communities, nor the UK as a whole”.

Matthew Hare, chief executive of commercial rural broadband provider Gigaclear, backed the PAC’s criticism of the uncompetitive nature of the funding awards: “As BT has now won all of the existing rural broadband contracts, the government are effectively allowing one single supplier to cover all without taking into account alternative networks that can provide much faster speeds.

“While the PAC’s recommendation is for councils to identify alternative solutions, there’s a danger that any future funding may still go to BT because of the contracts in place,” he added.

The PAC will be tracking DCMS’s progress on its recommendations with the view to holding another hearing if it fails to “improve its approach to protecting public funds”.

Responding to the report, BT said in a statement that the PAC’s criticism was “inaccurate and unjustified”.

“BT was the only company willing to accept the challenging terms on offer and make a significant investment in rural areas. This was at a time when others walked away when they realised easy pickings weren’t to be had. Claims that BT is a ‘monopoly’ are simply inaccurate given more than 100 ISPs are offering fibre across BT’s open network.”

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