Opinion

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The Government should force BT’s hand over rural broadband

5 Mins

For years now, the Government has been promising British businesses and communities in rural areas better broadband provision. In my experience, this is clearly not happening.

As a growing business in the heart of the Cotswolds, we are faced every day with cripplingly slow broadband speeds. This is not only incredibly frustrating for everyone in the business but also limits productivity as we wait for emails and documents to download. A simple task such as booking flight tickets online for a trade show can take an interminable amount of time.

As a business with almost a quarter of its revenue from exports, and much of our growth coming from important emerging overseas markets such as China, access to fit-for-purpose broadband services is absolutely essential. For us and for many entrepreneurial small and medium-sized businesses like us, better broadband speeds are no longer a ‘nice to have’. In a world where business is increasingly conducted online, decent broadband access is a commercial necessity.

While the Government continues to make empty pledges about improving rural businesses’ access to broadband services and willingly hands over tens of millions of pounds of tax payers’ money to BT to solve the problem, SMEs located outside large towns and cities are being left feeling frustrated, disillusioned, disappointed and increasingly isolated.

The Government’s Rural Broadband Programme has been heralded as the solution to the problem and there is no denying that the Government has put its money where its mouth is. After an original promise of £530 million of funding, a further £250 million was announced in the 2013 Autumn Statement to extend superfast broadband to 95 per cent of UK premises by 2017.

However well-intentioned this is, the nub of the issue is that the deal the Government has made with BT is shrouded in complete mystery. Despite the fact that it is tax payers’ hard earned cash that has been given to BT to improve rural areas’ broadband provision, BT has so far refused to divulge where the money is being spent. 

We know that several Rural Community Broadband Fund projects have been rejected on the grounds that they cannot demonstrate their eligibility. In order to be eligible, the projects must be located in the final 10 per cent of the country not covered by the Local Broadband Plan but the exact reach of this plan is deemed to be confidential by BT and therefore not publicly available.

In my view this is not only immoral but is anti-competitive. BT’s strategy of keeping its cards close to its chest and being as secretive as possible is stopping alternative broadband providers for bidding projects as they have to wait for BT to publicly reveal its delivery plans. 

This deliberate lack of transparency concerning BT’s costs and broadband deployment plans is effectively closing the door for alternative providers, shutting them out of the market to create a monopoly and in turn, hindering broadband delivery and strangling rural businesses.

Of course, some rural communities are fighting back, clubbing together to pay for better broadband services themselves but why should they have to pay through the nose again when they have already paid their council through their taxes to provide decent broadband access?

This is clearly wrong. The Government needs to take action now to force BT’s hand and do as much as possible to help the tens of thousands of rural businesses across the length and breadth of the UK that are struggling to grow and compete, suffocated by a lack of bandwidth.

Fit-for-purpose, decent broadband services that are available to everyone, regardless of where they live, is vital. Access to faster connectivity should not be a postcode lottery. Britain’s future economic success depends on it.

Henry Williams is MD of Williams Automobiles

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