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Ministry of Fun builds crack team to juice up bumpkin broadband

BDUK consultants, Whitehall mandarins sent to the sticks

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The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has assembled a crack team of Whitehall and BT bods to speed up the deployment of broadband to rural areas.

A pilot scheme will be be tested on bumpkins* in Norfolk after the county chose BT as its preferred bidder for a £41m contract to bring faster net connections to the region.

The Ministry of Fun said that the rollout process would be scrutinised by the team and will focus on planning, highways and power issues. Maria Miller - the department's Secretary of State - has already said that she wanted to cut through red tape to accelerate the deployment of speedier broadband connections throughout Blighty by 2015.

However, the DCMS has seen procurements for the provision of superfast broadband get off to a sluggish start. It spent much of last year wrangling with the European Commission over permission to use public money, effectively state aid, to fund the installations.

The process was slowed by competition concerns raised by the EU after it emerged that national telco BT has been the only company to bag any funds to date from the £530m pot of taxpayers' cash set aside for rural areas. This lump of dosh, called Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), caught the attention of Brussels officials, who questioned whether the procurement process was fair for the telecoms giant's rivals.

The state aid was finally cleared late last year with some conditions attached that included a number of "best practices" that would lead to "more effective, better targeted and less distortive public interventions". One of those requirements laid out by the Commission was for a "national competence centre". It said at the time:

The Commission encourages nationwide broadband support schemes to ensure consistency between small projects and to avoid delays in the implementation through reduced administrative burden for local authorities.

The plan is to setup such support schemes for all the local authorities that were awarded the BDUK funds.

Communications minister Ed Vaizey claimed: "Norfolk is on track to double access to superfast broadband for homes and businesses, and by having these discussions now, we can help ensure that the people of Norfolk will receive all the benefits that superfast broadband has to offer at the very earliest opportunity."

BT agreed the scheme would help speed up the deployment of its broadband network in the countryside.

Vaizey told MPs this week how local councils were progressing with their BDUK projects. He said:

I can confirm that nine projects have signed contracts, 15 are in procurement and the remainders are in preparation to begin procurement. Broadband Delivery UK is working closely with the local project teams to support their progress and contract signature at the earliest opportunity.

However, while planning such projects accurately is an important issue, at least one council is continuing to tussle with BT over contract concerns.

Presumably, the scheme will lead to BDUK's 70 consultants (worth £9.8m) and Whitehall mandarins strolling around the countryside in their wellies with clipboards iPads in hand. ®

* You've written in to protest over the term, so natch we had to have another go. You're welcome.

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