Superfast broadband projects at risk

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TELECOMS companies have come under fire for putting a £15 million scheme to expand access to superfast broadband in Yorkshire at risk.

Concern is growing that the project could fall foul of European rules because of companies’ failure to share their plans for rolling out broadband technology.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority asked around 50 companies for information but just six responded.

European regulations, known as ‘state aid rules’, are designed to stop private companies getting an unfair advantage over their competitors through public subsidies.

The combined authority needs to show it is using public money to expand broadband into areas that private companies would otherwise ignore or not reach for several years but cannot do that unless telecoms business share their plans.

An earlier project should give 97 per cent of homes in West Yorkshire access to superfast broadband and this scheme is designed to help fill the remaining gaps in coverage.

The Combined Authority has secured £7 million from the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme to support its latest efforts and will match that with money from other sources.

Bradford Council leader David Green, chaiman of the combined authority’s investment committee, said: “There are areas which we have all identified as areas that need this support because of deprivation or economic problems that despite the current contract don’t have cheap and simple access to superfast broadband.

“We need to make sure in this round that whoever we contract with they will deliver our priorities.

“I think we need to make that brutally clear.”

BDUK has been criticised by MPs because telecoms giant BT has dominated the contracts awarded under the scheme.

The Public Accounts Committee also complained about the lack of transparency over where BT is installing cables so making it harder for competitors to fill the gaps.

The Government’s ultrafast broadband programme, known as superconnected cities, has also been criticised for clashing with state aid rules.

As a result, a project to create an ultrafast broadband corridor connecting businesses and homes through Leeds and Bradford had to be significantly changed last year.

In an effort to safeguard the latest project from legal challenges, the combined authority will now publish the information it has managed to collect over where the private sector is intending to build networks and give companies the opportunity to contest it.

The combined authority will have to choose whether to award the contract through BDUK - effectively guaranteeing it to BT - or choose to hold a local competition.

Coun Richard Lewis, a member of the combined authority’s investment committee, said: “The Government has made a mess of this framework and we are picking up the pieces.”

A spokesman for the UK Competitive Telecoms Association said how companies responded to open market reviews was a matter for individual firms while a spokeswoman for Virgin Media said it usually took part in such exercises.

A BT spokesman said: “BT is fully compliant with Broadband Delivery UK policy and process on the Superfast Extension Programme.”

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