THE architect of a £100m taxpayer-funded scheme to bring super-fast internet access to homes and businesses across South Yorkshire has admitted the project "wobbled" earlier this year but insists it is now back on track.
Phil Coppard, chief executive of Barnsley Council and the driving force behind the flagship South Yorkshire Digital Region project, said conflicts with BT were to blame for many of the problems that have hit the ground-breaking scheme since it got under way last year.
Millions of pounds of taxpayer-funded loans have been poured into the project by South Yorkshire councils, with bosses expecting to recoup their money as residents and businesses sign up for the new internet service – which offers download speeds at least five times faster than the UK average.
Hundreds of miles of new fibre-optic cables have been laid beneath the streets of South Yorkshire, but with roll-out more than half-way through, few people have actually signed up for the service.
Accounts published this week revealed a "material uncertainty" over the scheme's viability and highlighted issues between project managers and Thales, the private contractor carrying out much of the physical work.
Mr Coppard admitted the project has been more challenging than he had first expected.
He said: "It's been a steep learning curve for us. But in actual fact the accounts are pretty much where we expected them to be."
"To be honest we have had some difficulties with Thales – they haven't performed well in relation to the marketing side of the project. There was a wobbly period in the middle of the year but I'm much more confident about it now.
"I would be foolish to say I didn't worry about it – of course I worry about it. It's a risky project, but it's a risk which I think is measured and is worth taking given the potential benefits to the region.
"I'm pretty sure at the end this will succeed – but whether it succeeds 'big' I don't know.
"It's a fast-moving world. But I think we are through the wobble and things are looking good."
Mr Coppard said negotiations with Thales have gone well and that new working arrangement had been agreed on to make the project more competitive.
But he said major issues remain with BT, who have been accused of over-charging schemes such as Digital Region to connect to its network of telephone cabinets.
BT runs its own rival next-generation internet service, BT Infinity.
"For me, the real story here is BT's efforts to kill this project," Mr Coppard said.
BT denies over-charging but recently launched a price review after Digital Region and other private network owners complained to Ofcom. It is due to report back before Christmas.