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Broadband minister admits rural rollout by 2015 is 'challenging target'

Could £530m BDUK project hit the skids?

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Broadband minister Ed Vaizey has confessed that the government's £530m pledge to deploy a faster fibre network to rural areas by 2015 is "a challenging target".

Speaking with MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, Vaizey said that his department was "running as fast as we can" to deliver on time. However, he also said that it would be impossible to bring the project forward early.

He added that, while the Department for Culture, Media and Sport remained determined to hit its deadline - which coincides with the end of the current Parliament - waiting for state aid clearance from Brussels had been a "factor in the delay" to getting physical work properly underway.

Vaizey claimed that competition officials in Europe who probed the allocation of Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) funds "kept resetting the clock", which the minister described as "frustrating".

That's markedly different to what your correspondent has heard. A source told The Register that it was the UK government and not the commission that dragged its heels over providing documents to help competition wonks assess the BDUK project.

This was borne out by the competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia earlier this week, who told the Financial Times:

Politicians on both sides of the Channel must avoid red tape, but the real origin of the delays ... should also be made clear. We asked the UK government last February to supply the necessary information to us and only received a complete answer in October.

As it stands, BT is the only preferred bidder to have secured any cash from the government to roll out its fibre network in various parts of the country where the national telco had previously not seen a business case for investing its own money into such projects.

When quizzed about BT's overarching dominance in the race for the BDUK pot, the minister said: "In theory there are two companies involved."

Indeed, Fujitsu is the other preferred bidder - the only trouble is that it is yet to bag any contracts with local authorities. Whitehall has also chided the Japanese tech giant for its failure to deliver on previous IT projects. But the company has denied that it is on any government blacklist.

That said, as Vaizey made clear, one can only theorise about Fujitsu at this stage.

A further £300m is being set aside from the BBC licence fee which won't be dished out until after the next General Election. When asked by MPs what that pile of cash would be used for, Vaizey said "we've not taken a decision about that at the moment".

One politico wondered if those funds would be needed if the BDUK project was to hit delays ... ®

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