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New broadband minister snubs 'ugly' fibre cabinet gripes

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Brits will no longer be able to object to the arrival of "ghastly" fibre optic cabling cabinets outside their homes: Blighty's new broadband minister has stamped her authority on moves to upgrade the nation's internet infrastructure that sidestep local councils.

Maria Miller, who replaced Jeremy Hunt earlier this week during Prime Minister David Cameron's reshuffle, said she planned to legislate immediately following consultation, and added the government would – if necessary – use existing powers to put an end to local bureaucracy that she thinks is slowing down the rollout of faster broadband.

She said:

Superfast broadband is vital to secure our country’s future – to kick start economic growth and create jobs. We are putting in the essential infrastructure that will make UK businesses competitive, and sweeping away the red tape that is a barrier to economic recovery.

The government means business and we are determined to cut through the bureaucracy that is holding us back.

We on the networks desk at Vulture Central can't help but sense a panicky tone to Miller's statement. After all, the government is hoping to treat Britain to the fastest broadband network in any "major" European country by 2015.

Hunt's rhetoric was recently tweaked to say "major" Euro countries when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - now headed up by Miller - spotted that it was foolishly aiming to have the best broadband network on the entire continent.

Just yesterday, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State Ed Vaizey told Parliament which countries Blighty was actually competing with. He said:

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport considers countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain as being the major European nations which we compare ourselves with regarding broadband speed and other key performance indicators.

So there you have it.

Meanwhile, NIMBYs in Kensington & Chelsea and other well-heeled parts of London will be bitterly grumbling into their G'n'Ts tonight, because they will not be able to oppose fibre-optic cabinet installations in their boroughs.

Miller's department said the move was "essential to the UK's economic future". The government has allocated £680m during this Parliament to fund the delivery of faster broadband networks in rural and urban areas, covering about 90 per cent of Blighty.

The DCMS said that, under the plans:

  • broadband street cabinets and other infrastructure can be installed without the need for prior approval from the local council (except in Sites of Special Scientific Interest);
  • broadband companies will face less cost and bureaucracy in laying cables in streets; and
  • broadband cables and cabinets can be installed on or under private land without the bureaucratic burden of long-running negotiations.

Exceptional circumstances would be considered on a case-by-case basis, the DCMS said.

Private landowners will also be told that fibre can be laid under or above their land, with the government doing away with "the bureaucratic burden of long-running negotiations".

The DCMS added that overhead broadband lines can also be installed in any area without providers needing to first seek planning permission from local councils.

Virgin Media said in a canned statement that it welcomed the department's decision to "cut through red tape" but added that the move was "overdue".

Despite all the noises coming out of the DCMS about speeding up the delivery of speedier broadband for the UK, one massive hurdle in this entire venture remains...

The government still awaits approval from the European Union on state aid for rural broadband schemes, which was stalled after Brussels' officials expressed concern about the apparent lack of competition in the bidding process. BT has so far bagged every local contract.

Vaizey told Parliament earlier this week:

The government has had extensive discussions with the European Commission regarding the request for approval of an umbrella state aid notification for broadband projects including at senior level.

The department has provided the commission with all the information that it has requested and it is considering its decision. The Secretary of State believes that recent discussions have resolved outstanding issues and he [Hunt] is optimistic about a positive outcome.

In the meantime, however, as conceded by a DCMS spokesman talking to your correspondent in July, there'll be no "spades in the ground" until the impasse is dealt with. ®

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