NAO criticises heavily delayed UK rural superfast broadband plans and BT dominance

An official audit has found out that the government's introduction of superfast broadband to rural areas is two years behind schedule.

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has shown that only nine of 44 projects will meet the original May 2015 date.

Of the remaining 35 projects, four (Cumbria, Highlands and Islands, Norfolk and Suffolk) could even fail to hit the revised 2017 deadline.

The NAO has also confirmed the plans will cost the taxpayer more than originally expected, as well as raised concerns over BT's role in the broadband scheme.

Back in 2011, then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced plans to dedicate £530 million to getting the whole of the UK connected, with 90 per cent of homes getting access to speeds of at least 24Mbps by May 2015.

However, this has now changed. Instead, the target is to provide 95 per cent of UK homes with superfast broadband by the end of 2017 – 22 months later than the original date and beyond the next general election.

According to the NAO report, the scheme could also require an extra £207 million.

16 hopefuls were initially in the running to win the rural broadband contracts but BT dominated proceedings, and is the only competitor still standing.

According to the firms that dropped out, the bidding process was overly complex and weighted towards larger organisations with more financial clout.

"The rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value," said auditor general Amyas Morse.

BT has defended itself though, saying, "Deploying fibre broadband is an expensive long-term business and so it was no surprise that others dropped out as the going got tough."

The NAO also said that BT's claim that 40 per cent of its costs would be on staffing is difficult to verify.

It is more worrying still that BT's figures are based on the assumption that 20 per cent of households would sign up to superfast broadband within seven years of the rollout. This is below the figures predicted by industry experts.

The rural superfast broadband scheme has been riddled by problems ever since it was announced. It was hit by delays last year, when the EU took longer than expected to approve the plans.

Last month it emerged that all but two of the participating local authorities had failed to receive any money from the government's £530 million funding pot by March. Still, a DCMS spokesman said, "Work is underway in sites across the country and we are confident the vast majority of projects will be completed by 2015."