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Desperate broadband minister in Brussels cash splash dash

Miller to wrangle with Eurocrats over BDUK competition

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Culture Secretary Maria Miller, chief of UK broadband policy, has raced to Brussels this morning to have crisis talks with the European Commission's competition boss, Joaquin Almunia, in a move to get state aid clearance for the £530m rollout of broadband networks in rural parts of the UK.

The Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) had recently appeared confident that the EC would allow the projects to get underway imminently.

It's understood that Miller is extremely frustrated that the issue of state aid had been stalled for some 10 months now, effectively preventing any physical work from progressing.

The government has plans to reach some 90 per cent of homes in Britain with broadband download speeds of at least 2Mbit/s by 2015. There are clear concerns that the slow machinations of Brussels could put a serious dent in those ambitions.

BT and Fujitsu are the preferred bidders for public sector contracts in the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) process. However, Fujitsu remains on the naughty step, leaving national telco BT to slurp up much (if not all) of the cash. It's this lack of serious competition for the funds that lies behind Brussels' reluctance to OK the spending, as EU governments aren't supposed to encourage monopolies.

However, Miller's department remains convinced that state aid clearance will happen - and probably by the end of this month. That said, the minister's dash to speak with Almunia indicates a sense of nervousness about the process remaining stalled.

A DCMS spokesman told us that the minister had gone to Brussels "for confirmation that [state aid investment in rural broadband in the UK] will happen".

There are also concerns about other projects being suspended by the European Commission, El Reg has learned.

A £150m fund set aside by the UK government for urban investment in the deployment of next generation broadband networks could also be stalled by competition scrutiny from the EC. Tax relief for video games could also be struck by the same delays from Brussels.

Miller wants the process to be "streamlined" to speed up such investment, we were told. ®

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