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Telecom giant under fire for local broadband policy

06/03/15

MP says exclusive deal dashes hopes of 100% rural superfast coverage

Clovelly Surf Telecomm's TowerAn MP has demanded an investigation into "anti-competitive behaviour" which she says will leave rural areas without superfast broadband.

During a House of Commons debate BT was accused of grabbing a near-exclusive deal in Devon and Somerset after refusing to join an open bidding process.

The contract dashes hopes of delivering 100% coverage to far-flung parts of the counties, which currently have some of the poorest broadband coverage, ministers were told.

Somerset MP Tessa Munt, a Liberal Democrat, said she had written to the Competition and Markets Authority over "BT's apparent refusal to join an open bidding process".

She said: "It looks as though BT has held back information that might have enabled other organisations to join the bidding process. By saying that that information is commercially sensitive, it has prevented anybody from being involved in tendering for the phase two superfast extension programme.

"BT will not invest in the programme to take coverage above 95%. Its focus must be on shareholder value - so there is no incentive for it to do that.

"People will not know whether they will get faster broadband under phase two until BT sees fit to tell them. Businesses and individuals cannot plan their futures on that basis."

Meanwhile, Conservative Richard Bacon said BT had "inflated its budgets for the rural broadband programme, thereby obtaining more state aid than it was entitled to".

And fellow Tory Neil Parish, a Devon MP, said it was vital that BT "feels pain in order to deliver".

In reply to Munt, Ed Vaizey, the communications minister, said he would "happily look at evidence of any anti-competitive practice".

But he warned: "We should remember that when we are busily kicking BT, which we do in all these debates, for a quiet life, BT might not bid for any of these contracts."

And he added: "I will stand up for BT as a great British company, which has worked tirelessly on this project and for which it seems to have received an endless supply of grief. BT has provided value for money - it has delivered what we have asked it to deliver and it is working at pace."

In Somerset and Devon, BT won a £94 million contract to get the quickest connections to 90% of properties, one of 44 regional deals it was awarded.

It is then accused of refusing to join an open bidding process for second phase of expansion - a £45.5 million deal, but only for the next 5% of homes and businesses.

The move prompted the council-led managers of Connecting Devon and Somerset, to scrap a full tender and instead negotiate a deal exclusively with BT.

Pictured: Clovelly Surf Telecomm's Tower by David Neale [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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