Government trying to shut down community broadband projects

BT OPENREACH 4

 

by MICHAEL RUSSELL

 

The Scottish Government are deliberately trying to put community broadband projects out of business so they can hand the whole contract for supplying the Highlands and Islands over to large commercial operators such as BT, it was alleged this week.

Last week, at a workshop event, Community Broadband Scotland told local groups their networks will be taken over by large firms unless they can demonstrate compliance with the new R100 initiative, which is designed to give everyone superfast broadband by 2021. CBS were set up by the Government and are now part of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. They have helped establish dozens of community-owned broadband schemes since 2012.

However, there are now concerns that an Open Market Review of all community projects to test whether they can meet the R100 guarantee of providing superfast broadband is intended to block CBS funding for small-scale providers. By 5th August, community groups need to supply the Government with details of how they are to provide their customers with download speeds of at least 30 Mbps.

The allegation was made by Professor Peter Buneman, who helped set up the Tegola wireless broadband initiative that serves Glenelg, Knoydart and south Skye. This grew into the HUBS community interest company that provides support across Scotland.

“CBS has not been that successful but they had started to fund community projects in sensible way,” he told the Free Press. “They were all ready with HIE to fund HUBS to deliver backhaul but then the Scottish Government vetoed it, much to the chagrin of CBS.

“Because of this R100 review it means at least another year’s delay. It is a standard bureaucratic story, really. People with no technical knowledge don’t want to make life any more complicated for themselves so they want to fund one or two big organisations rather than lots of little ones.”

Prof Buneman’s colleague at HUBS, Professor Gordon Hughes, added: “An Open Market Review is required for State Aid clearance, but the format is not prescribed and the process could applied in a flexible manner. HUBS and its members are being asked to provide detailed information on up to 400,000 properties in a little over two weeks, a task that would require months of work by community networks run largely by volunteers. In practice, this appears to be a deliberate attempt by the Scottish Government to exclude – and subsequently put out of business – all community broadband networks. It is sad and surprising that the Scottish Government should adopt anti-competitive policies that favour large corporations at the expense of locally-based initiatives.”

A spokeswoman for Connectivity Secretary Fergus Ewing confirmed that community projects must demonstrate how they are going to deliver superfast broadband of at least 30 Mbps – a target speed that was missing from the initial fibre roll out carried out by BT over recent years.

She added: “We are committed to delivering 100 per cent superfast broadband access across Scotland by 2021, and we are developing the Reaching 100 per cent (R100) programme to help achieve this ambition. The Highlands and Islands Enterprise workshop was an opportunity for existing community networks to find out more about the programme and the potential options available to them.

“It is not the case that community broadband networks will be ‘taken over’ by larger operators. The costs involved in upgrading such a network will likely mean that some communities choose to wait for the Reaching 100 per cent programme. In cases where communities do choose to maintain and upgrade their own networks, the Scottish Government remains ready to support them.”