The big broadband swindle: rural internet needs fixing and fast

This mess matters

Skye

Remember the government's much-vaunted scheme to bring broadband to everyone in rural areas by 2015? You'll be shocked and stunned to discover that it's going brilliantly.

...if by "brilliantly" you mean "over budget, behind schedule and with some seriously funny-looking figures".

As The Guardian reports, the government's own auditors say that "fewer than a quarter of the projects will be ready by May 2015, the expected delivery date, and the scheme will cost the public purse an extra £207m".

Meanwhile plans to bring superfast broadband to 95% of us have been pushed back two years.

Snakes and ladders

BT's expected to win all 44 contracts for rural broadband, but it seems that there are huge differences in the prices it charges councils. "Commercial confidentiality" means councils can't compare notes to see if they're being shafted, and the government's auditors found huge disparities in pricing: in some areas the cost of cabling cabinets is £19,600; in others, £51,000.

On average, BT is charging 12% more to cable England than it did in Northern Ireland - and, according to the Guardian, "checks made by civil servants have already identified over-charging. In one area BT was found to have inflated project management costs by £3m".

The waste isn't the worst of it. The delays are causing real problems for rural communities.

Far from the madding Cloud

Living in the countryside sucks, and the more rural you are the more it sucks. While house prices are generally lower the cost of almost everything else is higher.

For example a new study of Scottish rural areas found that rural Scots pay more for their lighting, heating and petrol or diesel than their English equivalents.

Food costs more, clothes cost more, household goods cost more: if you're single or married with children, the cost of living is up to 40% higher than in urban bits of England and 15% higher than rural England. The gap between rural England and urban England isn't quite so dramatic, but it's still significant.

The internet changes all that, of course, but only if you can get it. With decent internet access you can work remotely or run a business from home, access all the cost savings of online shopping, communicate more easily with others, access online services and so on. Without it, you're stuffed.

It's a mess. The way the procurement process was structured squeezed out small operators, effectively handing the whole project (and over £1 billion in public money) to BT and, according to the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones, small operators can't make plans for rural provision because BT's being "secretive for commercial reasons about exactly where its fast services will reach in each county".

Culture secretary Maria Miller is holding a rural broadband summit and a source told the Telegraph that she will "hold BT to account and thrash out problems".

I hope that's true. People in rural areas deserve much better than this.