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Hunt empties broadband funding pot across Blighty

Euro speed dominance by 2015 as promised? Unlikely

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Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt ambitiously declared earlier this year that he wanted Britain to be gifted with the fastest broadband network in Europe by 2015. But as of today that plan remains a huge challenge, given that its success is heavily reliant on endorsement and big financial subsidies from local authorities and the private sector.

Hunt's department announced today that it had allocated £294.8m to 45 English counties (7-page PDF/154KB) and a further £68.8m to Scotland.

The funds were divvied up from the £530m pot that was created by the Coalition last year to help reach the final one-third of homes and businesses (around 9 million premises) over the four countries in Blighty – areas where telco giant BT could not find a compelling business case to invest in upgrading infrastructure.

Hunt has always been clear that £530m wouldn't be enough cash to pump into all the rural areas still crying out for broadband coverage in the UK, however. His department has previously said that it was seeking a further £300m from government in order to reach remote areas of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

But the extra £300m needed to make Hunt's plans a reality won't happen in this Parliament.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it "will be available by 2017 as part of the TV licence fee settlement".

However, a DCMS spokesman confirmed to The Register this morning that "there has been no decision taken on how it will be spent".

He said the £300m in funds had been set aside for broadband, but told us that it was unclear which government department would be allocating the money, which is expected to be skimmed off the BBC licence fee after the fee was frozen for six years in a cash-sensitive settlement with Auntie.

What this means is that around 90 per cent of businesses and homes in each local authority in the UK can expect to have access to a "superfast" broadband network by 2015. The remaining 10 per cent should, at minimum, see broadband connection speeds of 2 Mbit/s.

But such a goal remains a huge challenge given that the funds need to be matched by the private sector and money from local councils and the Scottish gov, all of which – like central government – are feeling the pinch from cutbacks to other services.

As of today, £430m has been taken out of the current pot. That leaves around £100m still to be spent during this Parliament. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is tasked with allocating some of that cash in the remaining hard-to-reach parts of the UK.

However, it is unclear how much of that money Defra will get its hands on, as the DCMS spokesman told us that some of that £100m figure has been set aside specifically as a "contingency fund".

Meanwhile Hunt urged taxpayers in Scotland and England – whose Scottish Parliament and local authorities had been allocated broadband money – not to "suffer in silence".

The culture secretary said: "Make it clear to your local elected representatives that you expect them to do what is needed to access this investment and to deliver broadband to your community."

BT is spending up to £2.5bn to deliver its own fibre broadband network to two-thirds of UK premises by the end of 2015.

In April this year Fujitsu said it hoped to bring 1Gbit/s fibre technology to five million homes in rural Britain over the next three to five years in a £2bn project with TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Cisco.

To achieve that target, the Japanese tech giant said it needed to get its hands on £500m from the broadband cash handed to local authorities in the UK. The project also hinges on BT's Openreach division providing access to its underground ducts and telegraph poles. ®

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