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Government under fire over use of taxpayer cash for rural broadband rollout

Friday, January 23rd 2015 by Ellen Branagh

The committee of MPs that scrutinises government spending of taxpayers’ money will return to the issue of rural broadband next week.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has been scathing of the programme to roll out rural broadband in the past, will have a session on the issue on Wednesday.

Witnesses at the progress update will include programme bosses from the government as well as BT.

The government has set a target of bringing superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps and above) to 90% of the UK by 2016 through its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme. A superfast extension programme will extend coverage to 95% by the end of the following year.

In November the government announced that the programme had passed 1.5 million homes and BDUK CEO Chris Townsend told Cable.co.uk connections to 40,000 properties were being laid per week in what he described as “the fastest deployment on a weekly basis in Europe".

In past reports, the PAC has been critical of the management of the £1.2 billion programme by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), saying that it failed to promote meaningful competition, leaving BT in a monopoly position.

In a report in September 2013, DCMS was accused of giving away taxpayers’ money without performing the necessary checks.

Concerns included a lack of transparency by BT over its rollout plans, effectively squeezing other broadband providers out of the rural market.

And in a subsequent report in April last year, PAC chair Margaret Hodge said the government had still failed to deliver “meaningful competition”, despite the committee’s previous warnings.

The issue of rural broadband has remained contentious, with smaller broadband providers critical of the way the BDUK programme is run.

Rural campaigners have voiced concerns that consumers in the hardest-to-reach areas are being left out, while businesses have also said they are excluded from the benefits of the scheme.

The PAC ‘s latest session on rural broadband will take place on Wednesday, with witnesses including DCMS permanent secretary Sue Owen and BDUK CEO Chris Townsend.

BT’s director of strategy, policy and portfolio Sean Williams will also appear, as well as Kim Mears, Openreach’s managing director of infrastructure delivery.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is also carrying out an inquiry into the issue of rural broadband and digital-only services.

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