The Government’s rural broadband initiative was a great idea. Like so many great ideas it has been wasted and withered by lack of imagination by supposed prudent contracting and procurement procedures in the public sector.
Now to add a few more nails to the particular coffin, the European Commission is essentially saying that the procedures used by the UK look suspiciously like state aid. Why is that so? Well, it looks like state aid because essentially it appears to be going to benefit BT who would have eventually built it anyway and it is or has become a way of simply subsidising then providing a universal broadband service.
Two years ago, with much trumpeting, pilot projects were kicking off and a whole new vista was opened of local, interesting projects allowing specific areas to trial technology particular to the location. What it has boiled down to, and Cumbria is a classic example, is a plain vanilla provision by BT or Fujitsu which does not itself actually meet Cumbria’s requirements according to press reports.
The reason problems have been caused? Well I am afraid I lay the blame at the feet of the consultants advising local authority groups putting in for the money and supervising the projects. I also, I suppose, blame the consultants advising BDUK. It is so easy to try and make sure public money is not wasted in projects of this nature and tying everybody down and up in knots rather than getting on with the job. Getting on with the job, however, requires probably an agile specification and learning about how the project goes while it has been working out. This always risks complete failure, something which of course is an anathema to UK public service, despite the number of times they have managed it. Having demanded in negotiations that potential bidders adhere to a set of terms and conditions that require you to warrant quality of the biscuits in the team meeting, is it any surprise that smaller agile companies find it difficult to meet conditions. The Broadband Minister, Mr Vaizey, (in the Civil Service he is called, I understand, for some unknown reason as “Lazy Vaizey”) says that nobody has been charging to his door saying that all of the problems have been caused by there being too many conditions. Well that is because the people who he thought might be charging to his door to tell him that (i.e. the local authorities) are the people who have been setting the conditions as advised by the usual suspects, consultants and engineers. So they were hardly likely to beat a path to the door of the Ministry, complaining about what they themselves had set.
Can a situation still be remedied? Well to misquote Shakespeare “let’s kill all the consultants”. As everybody knows, the actual quote is “let’s kill all the lawyers”; in fact that probably isn’t a bad idea when dealing with broadband. Only keep those who have an agile enough ability to deal with flexible contracts.
So what you could do is go back to the drawing board – and probably you should. Look at numbers of small local projects, almost community-based, not trying to eek the money out to get the whole of your county covered with broadband as some have done. Then you just need to learn a few lessons:
1. Public bodies are notoriously hopeless at choosing technology. I know I was the Secretary to the Cable Authority and it, and its predecessor, the Home Office, had chosen technology for cable television in the UK that nobody actually had the economic stomach to install – apart from that is Robert Maxwell (enough said);
2. The amount of investment needed to cover large tracts of rural UK means that just looking to one person makes it quite difficult. There need to be a number of funding routes and a number of companies involved, at least to begin with. Experience in the shape of Virgin Media tells us that cable companies in the UK that started out as 150 odd separate franchises can be amalgamated into one, even though that has left the odd legacy problem at Virgin which they still continue to manfully overcome.
3. Don’t be afraid if some systems fail and have to be bought out. In the course of that, their technology might be made over in the course of that fresh money arriving, or a moratorium from debts can see a turnaround in a project. Safety first is not always the best policy. So, if your local authority is still trying to grapple with a broadband project, if I were you I would start to take a second opinion to see if there is another way of doing things apart from the BDUK straight jacket which clearly has state aid funding problems anyway.
Finally, in order to let all manner of technologies work, you might just have to do something clever and propose innovative spectrum allocation which properly utilises wireless solutions where necessary. Although Mr Vaizey is looking for a quick way of sorting things out I will tell you what it is. Put in place general guidelines to prevent the use of any consultants, unless they have actually helped to build a system in the past or been involved in its actual financing; and, stop trying to play the safety safety game – except that it isn’t the safety safety game when the European Commission decides that state aid is the result.
Furthermore, my advice if you are the one or two large urban areas that are looking to try and encourage the development of new competitive broadband systems, and I know there are at least a couple in the North West and North East, then your problem may well be that however cheaply it is offered to you, any consultancy from a body that has more than 50 people will be deeply tainted with safety and undoubtedly a lack of actual expertise in building systems it is not worth it.
So Mr Vaizey, if you want to try and improve broadband, maybe you should just think back and try and create a patchwork quilt of smaller more localised projects which one day can be put together like Lego to make one big system. That is probably a better deal than the competition and other problems that go with accidentally engineering BT’s total broadband success and domination.