Councils "using broadband cash to feather their own nests"

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Authorities using public broadband grants to improve their own networks, critic claims

A rural broadband specialist has accused councils of using public money intended for public broadband to improve their own networks.

According to the founder of NextGenUs, a network provider targeting rural areas with wireless and fibre networks, councils are using their share of the £530 million rural broadband pool to improve their own networks, with the prime purpose of the grants bolted on as an afterthought.

The use these crumbs off the table to justify spending all the money on council services – and it's not just Cumbria, it's all around the country

“The councils have to have IT equipment and they haven't got any capital money to spend, and this windfall arrived in the shape of broadband grants from Broadband Delivery UK,” said Guy Jarvis, NextGenUs founder.

“The funding is getting diverted off into something where its primary purpose becomes an inconvenient truth and a bit of an add-on.”

Jarvis cited Cumbria as one of a number of regional authorities planning to use the broadband cash to bolster its own networks.

In its plans for “Accessible Cumbria”, the authorities have laid out ideas that would upgrade the core public service networks to schools and other council buildings, and then allow communities to piggyback onto hubs based around those buildings.

“We want to utilise the power of existing public-sector networks (connections we already have between many public-sector buildings, hospitals, office) and the Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online network,” the council says in its plan.

But according to Jarvis, the move sees too much investment going towards propping up the councils' own equipment, rather than being spent directly on rural rollout.

“A lot of counties are looking at using county networks,” he said. “What Cumbria has put forward is a procurement for a public-sector network using the money and it's basically spending it on beefing up its servers, beefing up the desktops, beefing up support and the WAN connectivity.

“Then it's a case of 'Oh yes - this money is supposed to be use for helping people without broadband, so what we'll do is create community hubs, possibly, and these will provide backhaul points for networks to be built by communities'.”

Jarvis said the councils would use these “crumbs off the table to justify spending all the money on council services – and it's not just Cumbria, it's all around the country”.

Council response

In response to Jarvis's claims, Cumbria said it made sense to use existing infrastructure as a starting point. "The county council has a significant network providing services to schools in remote areas,” a spokesperson said. “The proposal is to use that network as starting point for the Community Broadband project to avoid the waste of funds in duplicating a service some other way."

The council said upgrades to its own education network would only go ahead where they benefited wider broadband availability.

“In this way the 'education network' actually makes the rollout of broadband more economic and allows us to do more with the money,” the council said. “Any upgrade of the education network will be only for the benefit of the community broadband project."

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