Following reports in July 2012 that the UK’s rural broadband rollout strategy had been placed on hold while European regulators examine it, the Financial Times is today reporting that the European competition watchdog has given its approval to the plans. The news source claims that Joaquin Almunia, the European Commissioner for Competition, has suggested he is happy for state funds to be used to support the initiative, on the proviso that some small changes are made to the design of the government scheme.
As previously reported by CommsUpdate, the scheme was paused after confirmation that just two companies – fixed line incumbent BT and Japanese technology firm Fujitsu – had been selected to receive funding from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), a team within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) set up to deliver the government’s broadband strategy. BDUK’s main role is to allocate and distribute GBP530 million (USD829 million) in funding with a view to bringing superfast broadband to the third of UK homes and businesses which are not expected to be provided for by commercial rollouts. The state had originally aimed for an open process in which community groups and private firms would be commissioned to build Europe’s ‘best superfast broadband network’, with BDUK having published a framework covering 35 local authority areas, under which contractors competed to win equipment supply deals. However, with claims that the selection criteria had proved insurmountable, a number of companies, including Geo and Cable & Wireless withdrew from the process last year. It had been suggested that one of the main concerns with the setup was that BT was unprepared to offer access on a sufficiently open basis to the infrastructure it will roll out, with Brussels thought to want the incumbent to allow rival operators to be able to rent its dark fibre.
It is understood that, while the decision still needs to be approved by other commissioners – a situation which is likely to mean that there will not be a formal announcement until later this month – those close to the talks are said to see this as little more than a formality. Meanwhile, in the wake of the development the report cites the DCMS as saying: ‘It is our understanding that the commission is on track to issue its final decision in late October or early November, which will allow projects to get under way.’