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UK superfast broadband crew: EC competition bods are holding us up

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The UK is accusing the European Commission of holding up its superfast broadband programme with pesky concerns about free market competition.

The government has been trying to get its hands on state aid to build the infrastructure necessary to get better broadband to everyone, but unfortunately, with state telco BT pretty much the only one in line to get any of the dosh, the UK has been having trouble sliding its plans past the EC's competition authorities.

Most recently, the Urban Broadband Fund (UBF) for the Super Connected Cities Programme (SCCP) has run afoul of new EC guidelines, adopted at the end of last year, which require full, open access to state-aided builds.

A Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) spokesperson told The Register that one of the main challenges with getting cities hooked up to fast internet was meeting EU requirements "without creating unhelpful delays to delivery", which has been promised by 2015.

The DCMS said: "At a recent meeting with the EU Commission it was made clear that a workable State Aid approval for infrastructure would require an investigation of between 7 and 18 months. On this timescale, and with uncertainty over the eventual decision, cities would find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to deliver completed infrastructure elements of their plans by 2015."

Broadband minister Ed Vaizey had already complained late last year that Brussels' competition officials were delaying the umbrella Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project, which has allocated £530m for countryside internet and £150m for major cities.

A spokeswoman at competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia's office told The Register at the time that the EC had always treated the matter as a priority. It claimed the problem lay with the UK authorities, which it said had not provided it with the necessary information to make its assessments.

The problems stem from the fact that only BT was left in the running for any of BDUK's contracts once rival Fujitsu UK had bowed out.

Malcolm Corbett, chief exec of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), told The Register that because the UK had failed to get any competition into the rural part of the project, the EC would "take a very long, hard look" at urban proposals.

"As things stand, BDUK can't actually fund any infrastructure development directly so therefore, they're asking for alternative plans to be put forward by the cities by the middle of this month, which is not a huge amount of time," he said.

BDUK head Iain Bennett had already told an INCA seminar that the EC wasn't going to sign off on the funding plans without a lengthy investigation, which wasn't an option the project's head honchos were too keen on.

"Consultation with suppliers indicates that the market has limited appetite for those risks - therefore we need a new approach," Bennett said.

That new approach seems to include a "connection voucher scheme" that wouldn't breach EU state aid rules.

"BDUK's favourite approach is to try to encourage the use of some sort of end user vouchers for small businesses, which can then purchase next generation access connections of some description," Corbett explained.

"[But] INCA is concerned that the voucher scheme, unless it's designed really well, would end up subsidising BT's fibre-on-demand product."

The DCMS spokesperson said that the department was taking state-aid dependent infrastructure questions out of the scope of SCCP for the moment.

"This will allow cities to focus efforts on the components of their projects that can be delivered on time and can contribute to growth now," they said, referring to the voucher scheme, city centre Wi-Fi plans and other proposals that ostensibly don't need state aid approval. ®

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