It is two months since my last column for Computerworld UK. October is party political conference season and as I prepared to speak at a series of conference events it was particularly difficult to set aside the time to write a column.
Or to tell the absolute truth, to write a column entitled anything other than ‘Yet More Chaos and Incompetence at the Heart of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.’
Month after month I and others have tracked the slow motion train crash which is the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) broadband procurement process, although to call it a train crash does not do justice to the hard work of so many local authority IT departments (and their hired consultants!) anxious to boost local productivity by procuring the best network only to find they have no choice in a competitive bidding process that has ended up with no competition.
With regular revelations of particular failings and increasing criticism from the great, the good and the expert it takes increasing ingenuity to find other subjects of equal importance to cover. In September I chose to write about the representation of science and engineering in the media. But as we hit the mid point of this Government’s term I feel I must return to this critical part of the nation’s infrastructure.
To recap after breaking England up into over 40 uneconomic network fragments, designing a competitive procurement process which apparently did not take into account the importance of competition and dragging out negotiations with EU over state aid we still do not have a single contract signed for the rural broadband programme. Meanwhile the parliamentary Accounts Committee is considering investigating whether the whole process represents value for money and the Ultrafast Broadband programme is stalled as Virgin and BT challenge its state aid approval. And now we hear the rural programme state aid approval, which was promised for November, is to be delayed yet again...
Highlighting all this, repeatedly, as I have done in these electronic pages, appears pointless when the government seem as hellbent on driving competition out of our fixed telecoms network as they are at driving it into the National Health Service.
But there are three reasons why I have decided once again to focus on the whole debacle.
First Ed Vaizey, the minister responsible, said last week that we are "on track to have the best broadband in Europe" and "I don’t think there are any countries that we can learn from".
It’s up to everyone who cares about broadband in Britain, and that means everyone who cares about our economic future, to try to put an end to such dangerous complacency.
Secondly the midpoint of this government’s term coincides with the last government’s deadline for its Universal Broadband Pledge. If Labour were in power, everyone in this country would have had access to decent broadband within the month. OK so that’s not the superfast connections which sound so sexy, but it’s what small businesses in rural communities up and down the country are desperate for so they can play their part in helping the economy to grow.
Finally, and most constructively, I believe I have found out what may be behind at least part of BDUK’s woes.
They need to sort out their staffing.
Figures I obtained from the DCMS give a rate of attrition at Broadband UK which is truly outstanding. They started 2012 with 49 full time equivalent (FTE) staff and managed to lose half of them in the first quarter, a further 25% of an increased overall staffing in the following quarter and a further 25% between July and September. By September 53 FTE staff, more than the total number they started the year with, had left.
So while overall number of staff employed by BDUK doubled in 2012, very few of the original staff will have remained in place.
It is industry consensus that alarm bells should be ringing if staff turnover rates reach 25% per year; BDUK is looking at 110% for three quarters.
This chimes with what my contacts in industry and local authorities tell me.
They complain of untrained and difficult to get hold of contract employees, constantly changing with little expertise and no long term outlook.
My understanding is that BT’s standard contract for a BDUK procurement lasts 30 months. If we are going to meet the government’s 2015 deadline everything in those contracts needs to happen on time. That means BDUK, as well as BT, need to be on top of their game.
The UK’s digital infrastructure is a generational investment. BDUK needs a long term vision of its role. And for that, it needs to learn to keep its staff.