December 13 2013 Latest news:
Thursday, September 26, 2013
A scheme to roll out more superfast broadband to rural communities has been mismanaged and put public money at risk, an influential group of MPs has said.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) mismanaged the project, and BT was exploiting its monopoly by restricting access to cost and roll-out information.
Concerns were raised after the government revised its initial target of 90pc of the UK having superfast connections by 2015 to 95% by 2017.
Norfolk County Council signed a £30m deal with BT in December last year, promising to provide 80pc of the county’s businesses and properties with access to superfast fibre broadband.
BT signed a £40million contract to deliver the programme with Suffolk County Council.
Council bosses said the county’s “not spots” – where there is little or no internet access – would have a minimum speed of two megabits per second (Mbps) by Autumn 2015.
But Karen O’Kane, Better Broadband for Norfolk Programme Director, said the programme was “going well” with around 1,260 premises in parts of Costessey, South Wootton, Norwich, Thorpe End, Great Yarmouth, Thetford, Croxton and King’s Lynn already able to access superfast broadband services, and more broadband services in more areas are due to become available over the next week.
And she said the council had access to BT’s cost data in relation to the Norfolk programme, so we it could ensure it was getting good value for the public investment.
But South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, who is on the committee, said: the programme had handed BT a quasi-monopoly which it was “exploiting to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers”.
“The programme has also put public money at risk by leaving BT free to mark its own homework without sufficient transparency. BT has thus stopped local authorities from comparing costs with one another through secretive contractual arrangements whilst it has estimated that 40pc of capital costs will relate to labour and project management, both of which are difficult to assure.”
But a DCMS spokesman said: “We disagree with the views expressed by the PAC which are at odds with the findings of the National Audit Office. They found our approach reduced the cost to the taxpayer and reduced risk.
“We put in place a fair commercial process and encouraged different suppliers to bid. We are disappointed that the PAC fails to recognise that thousands of rural premises who have never had a decent broadband supply are now getting one, something that is vital for farmers, rural businesses and all those who live outside major cities.”
A BT spokesman claimed the report was “simply wrong” and failed to take on board a point-by-point correction the company sent to the committee several weeks ago.
“We have been transparent from the start and willing to invest when others have not. It is therefore mystifying that we are being criticised for accepting onerous terms in exchange for public subsidy - terms which drove others away. The taxpayer is undoubtedly getting value for money.”
It added: “Rolling out fibre is an expensive and complex business but we remain committed to the programme.”