Fiber broadband finally heads for the British countryside

The British countryside may be known for various bucolic charms, but high-speed connectivity is most definitely not a thing there. That’s about to change, though – the UK government has just been given the green light for a huge release of public funds aimed at getting rural areas fibered up.

The £530m ($843m) rollout will cover what is known as the ‘final third’. Basically, telcos such as BT are perfectly happy to bring superfast broadband to two-thirds of the country on the basis that they’ll get a good return for it. For the remainder, they need a bit of a push, and that push is being carried out by a government department called Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).

“BDUK… will assist local granting authorities in designing and implementing successful broadband support measures in line with EU competition rules,” competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia said in a statement. “The umbrella scheme will be a big step towards the achievement of the EU Digital Agenda targets and a strong impetus for growth in the UK.”

The biggest target this will help the UK hit is that of everyone in the EU having access to 30Mbps connectivity by 2020.

“Finally getting the green light from Brussels will mean a huge boost for the British economy,” UK culture secretary Maria Miller said in response. “Superfast broadband is essential to creating growth, jobs and prosperity and the delay has caused frustration within government. Today’s announcement means that we can crack on with delivering broadband plans, boosting growth and jobs around the country.”

Now, about that delay. As Miller points out, the European Commission took a few months longer than expected in giving its approval. The reason for this, most observers surmised, was the slight issue that almost all the government cash is likely to go to one company.

Indeed, in most of the UK, only two companies were left standing for the multitude of local tenders. BT was one and the other was Fujitsu – but Fujitsu messed up so spectacularly in previous public sector projects (particularly in the big National Health Service IT overhaul) that it’s now effectively blacklisted.

That leaves BT. It’s not as though BT will simply be sucking up money here – it is going to put its own cash into the final third deployments too – but it’s still a case of state aid benefiting one firm pretty much exclusively.

Almunia seems to think transparency and regulation will keep things on the level. The Commission statement reads:

“The UK telecommunications regulator [Ofcom] will have a crucial role in designing wholesale access prices and conditions. All information related to projects under the scheme (including mapping, public consultation, tenders, aid beneficiaries) will be published on a central website.”

For more detail, we’ll have to wait until the Commission publishes its reasoning in full. Either way, it’s full steam ahead for proper rural broadband in the UK – and, given that the first generation of copper-based broadband performed pretty awfully in those areas, the shift can’t come too soon.