The European Commission is set to give the UK the go-ahead for its plans to distribute £530 million to local authorities for the roll-out of superfast broadband to rural areas, following months of intense negotiations to gain state aid approval.
Local councils that have been allocated millions of pounds to lay fibre networks, but have been unable to do so because of the EU hold up, have expressed frustration at the process in recent months.
Worcestershire County Council said in July that there had been a “gross underestimation” of the time it would take to receive the funding.
A DCMS spokeswoman has previously told Computerworld UK that discussions with the European Commission have been ongoing since January.
“DCMS has agreed with the European Commission that we will put in place an umbrella scheme covering all local broadband projects. This means that one (rather than more than 40) state aid clearance need be obtained from the European Commission,” said the spokeswoman.
She added: “Our original notification [to the EC] was in January this year and we have been in intensive negotiation since then. We have provided the Commission with all the information that it has asked for and hope it will be able to give a positive decision shortly.”
According to the Financial Times, Joaquin Almunia, the European competition commissioner, has indicated he is happy for state funds to be used to support the government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) framework if some minor changes are made to the design of the scheme.
No indication was provided of in the report of what the ‘minor changes’ might be.
The decision, however, still needs to be approved by other commissioners, which is likely to delay any announcement until later this month.
State aid approval has been one of many sticking points for the government’s plans to get superfast fibre networks into rural areas.
A recent report from the House of Lords Communications Committee questioned BDUK’s success in increasing competition in the broadband marketplace, which has seen a number of ISPs pull out of the bidding process and to date has only seen BT win public funds.
“Our communications network must be regarded as a strategic, national asset. The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy,” said committee chairman Lord Inglewood.
“The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”
Research released this week also found that the UK has the lowest penetration of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) in Europe, with only 0.05 percent of households connected.
The UK government has said that it hopes to have the best broadband network in Europe by 2015, and has committed a minimum of £730 million up until 2015 to support the rollout.