INCA Statement on Rural Community Broadband Fund

INCA Statement: Rural Community Broadband Fund
Members of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association were shocked to learn that two key projects, due to be funded under the Rural Community Broadband Fund, have been rejected by their local authorities despite receiving strong support from the Secretary of State. Maria Miller made it clear that she thought these and other RCBF community projects should be given the chance to go ahead.
The projects, Cotswolds Broadband in Oxfordshire and Trailways in Dorset, were both in attendance at a meeting involving INCA with the Minister in July. These schemes, in line with many others, aim to deliver future-proofed fibre to the home and wireless services to thousands of rural households for around 34% state subsidy. This contrasts with BT's demand for nearly 90% state aid in similar areas with a focus on its less future-proofed FTTC offering. The difference is explained by the fact that the local schemes have a high level of community and other private investment, reducing the need for state aid.
It was precisely these sorts of schemes that the £20m RCBF fund was set up to support. BDUK has attempted to get these and several similar projects 'de-scoped' from the main county plans with BT so they can receive the subsidy. As pilots they are designed to creatively address the 'Final 10%' outside the scope of the main BDUK/county programmes. With no competition in the main BDUK programme RCBF is the only central government funding that can go to providers other than BT. It now looks like most of the fund will be unspent, or indeed be allocated to ... BT.
The fact that the county councils are unwilling to support alternative, lower subsidy, more future-proofed solutions in difficult to reach areas speaks volumes about the process. In at least one case BT is part of the committee that made the recommendation not to support the local scheme. It is obvious why BT doesn't want projects like this to go ahead; they don't want lower subsidy schemes to be supported. It is less obvious why the local authorities are unwilling to get the maximum bang for the taxpayer's buck. Powerful arm twisting? Not all local authorities are succumbing to BT’s bullying tactics and are supporting independent projects alongside their BT programmes. Why not Dorset and Oxfordshire?
The current state of affairs is becoming increasingly untenable. INCA's members large and small have voiced their concerns for two years, predicting that the BDUK framework would end up being very small indeed. The National Audit Office and Public Accounts committee expressed severe concerns about lack of transparency concerning BT's costings, BT's deployment plans and whether value for money can be achieved. BT, despite its protestations to the Public Accounts Committee, continues to claim commercial confidentiality and prevent publication of detailed information about where it plans to go with its £1.2bn and where it won't go. Alternative providers and local communities are frustrated by the secrecy. Several major operators and ISPs are protesting that the terms on which they get access to BT's state-funded infrastructure are too restrictive and too expensive. Meanwhile BT seems intent on using its state funding to kill off any competition and seize even more subsidy. One of the projects currently being ‘over-built’ by BT using state funds is B4RN, the fantastic example of community endeavour in Lancashire. The 'giant vampire death squid' that Malcolm Corbett described at the Public Accounts Committee hearing in July is still lurking, waiting to gobble up its prey.
BT are a very important part of the broadband infrastructure picture, but they are not the only game in town, nor are they always the most cost effective. Government really needs to send a very strong signal in favour of a competitive environment or the altnets, their investors and local communities will draw the obvious conclusion and seek other ways to fight for the right to compete fairly.
Seminar: Reaching the Final 10% - 20th November, London 
To find out more about the RCBF projects, other independent providers, new approaches to financing and how low subsidy, high speed broadband is reaching rural areas in other parts of Europe, join the INCA seminar on 20th November in London. Details and registration