One of the UK’s four rural broadband pilot schemes is being held up because European regulators are worried there wasn’t enough competition between BT and Fujitsu.
Worcestershire County Council can’t get access to £3.5m of Broadband Delivery UK funds until the European Commission is happy that it’s not just state aid for BT.
Broadband bidding in Worcestershire came down to just two companies – BT and Fujitsu – as it has in several other areas, with smaller network providers and community broadband groups complaining the system is unfair.
Worcestershire county councillor Ken Pollock said: “There’s been a gross underestimation of the time it will take to get this funding. We are talking hundreds of millions which has been allocated under BDUK, but it hasn’t been approved.
“An awful lot of excitement has been generated among parishioners in rural parts of Worcestershire, but there’s been a gross miscalculation.”
Broadband Delivery UK has £530m to distribute nationally, with more available from DEFRA for rural networks – some of which comes from Europe.
Brussels wants BT to open its fibre-optic networks to other providers through unused ‘dark’ fibre, cheaper access to its telegraph poles and underground ducts, and fibre-optic unbundling similar to the way copper DSL broadband is open to other providers.
West Worcestershire MP Harriett Baldwin issued a ‘back off Brussels’ warning to the European Commission.
She told the Worcester News: “I see no reason why European rules should stop Worcestershire from putting the job out to tender and I have contacted the secretary of state’s office to confirm that in writing.”
The Commission seems to be deciding each local case on its merits, with Birmingham City Council’s plans recently accepted because they included open network access.
The next battleground could be Cumbria, another rural pilot where Fujitsu has pulled out of the bidding, leaving BT the only runner in a race where community groups and small network operators again said they were pushed to the sidelines.
A BT spokesman said: “Discussions between the UK government and the commission continue on the issue of state aid. This is an EU issue as the commission is developing rules that need to work across Europe as well as taking the different conditions in the UK into consideration.
“We are working with the UK authorities for an outcome that both incentivises further investment in fibre broadband and delivers vibrant competition in broadband services.
“We believe there needs to be consistency with the wider regulatory framework which has given the UK the most competitive broadband environment in the world.”