Last week, in his speech at the National Farmer Union conference, Michael Gove (the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) identified access to fibre broadband and 4G as a key priority for the rural UK.
This may sound odd to those thinking of the countryside as a wild and old-fashioned world, not interested in the modern technologies. In point of fact, access to internet and digital services can hugely benefit rural communities and businesses. Unfortunately, rural areas have been struggling with poor connectivity for a long time.
So, well done to Mr Gove for acknowledging this issue and taking a clear stance in favour of universal access to broadband! Hopefully his statement will be followed by some concrete actions to support broadband rollout to the most remote communities.
Indeed I do agree with Mr Gove that “we must argue for this investment not just with passion but also precision”: too often public policy in broadband networks has been led by ideology rather than common sense.
Pity that the Secretary of State himself did not resist the temptation of reaffirming his personal beliefs, blaming the EU for the lack of connectivity in rural areas. What would you expect from a Brexiter, after all?
Following Mr Gove’s recommendation, I have decided to put my passion aside and share with you a brief yet precise analysis of his statements…
- “inside the EU, rules on state aid have prevented us from investing in broadband in a way that is best for the UK”.
The EU state aid guidelines indeed pose a number of restrictions on public interventions in the superfast broadband market. For example, public funds must be assigned through a competitive process and cannot be allocated to areas already served by commercial operators, in order to minimise market distortions.
Such a bureaucratic approach, however, has not foreclosed opportunistic behaviours from incumbents, whilst limiting the responsiveness of public bodies to new market stimuli. Consequently, I agree with Mr Gove that the EU State aid guidelines are far from being perfect.
Yet, it would be unfair to put all the blame on the EU regulation. For example, the failure of the Mobile Infrastructure project has nothing to do with the EU state aid guidelines. Likewise, if the Broadband Delivery to UK programme failed to target the areas most in need for public intervention is not (only) due to the limitations of the current EU regulation.
- “when we leave the EU we can put that money towards domestic priorities, like making our digital infrastructure work by improving rural broadband and connectivity overall.”
I cannot disapprove Mr Gove’s intention to devote “the money we no longer have to give to the EU” to rural communities (even though I thought they had already been promised to NHS… )
However, the Secretary of State could have been more precise and mention the considerable amount of EU funding invested to expand broadband coverage across the UK over the past 10 years.
As detailed in the table below, almost £300m from the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have been invested to support the supply of fast broadband, under the BDUK programme or other local projects. And the table does not include the numerous projects funded by ERDF to promote the digitisation of businesses and the creation of digital enterprises across the UK.
In fact, 13% of the £1.7m public funding invested since 2011 in the BDUK programme came from the EU purse. In Cornwall, the EU funded 40% of the overall investment needed to provide 95% of the premises with superfast broadband. (… and, yet, 56.5% of Cornish electors voted to leave)
|Local Authority||Project||Amount (m)|
|Wales||BDUK Phase 1||£ 80.0|
|Cornwall||Superfast Cornwall||£ 53.5|
|Scotland||BDUK Phase 1||£ 25.0|
|Lancashire, Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen||BDUK Phase 1||£ 16.5|
|Norther Ireland||BDUK Phase 1||£ 16.5|
|Cumbria||BDUK Phase 1||£ 13.7|
|Cheshire East, Cheshire West & Chester, Warrington, Halton||BDUK Phase 1||£ 13.6|
|South Yorkshire||Digital Region||£ 11.7|
|North Yorkshire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 11.6|
|West Yorkshire||BDUK Phase 1 & 2||£ 11.1|
|Greater Manchester||BDUK Phase 1||£ 5.0|
|East Riding of Yorkshire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 4.4|
|Merseyside||BDUK Phase 1||£ 4.4|
|Nottinghamshire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 2.7|
|Derbyshire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 2.5|
|Cambridgeshire||BDUK Phase 3||£ 2.3|
|North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 2.1|
|Northumberland||BDUK Phase 1 & 2||£ 2.0|
|Warvickshire||BDUK Phase 3||£ 2.0|
|Worcestershire||BDUK Phase 3||£ 1.6|
|Leicestershire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 1.2|
|North Yorkshire||BDUK Phase 3||£ 1.0|
|Wiltshire, South Gloucestershire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 0.7|
|Cambridgeshire, Peterborough||BDUK Phase 2||£ 0.6|
|Lincolnshire||BDUK Phase 1||£ 0.6|
|Greater Manchester||BDUK Phase 2||£ 0.5|
|Newcastle||BDUK Phase 1||£ 0.4|
|Total EU funding for local broadband projects||£ 287.3|
No matter how significant the contribution of the EU has been so far: according to Mr Gove, the rural divide in the UK will be solved only taking back control. To be more precise, though, the Secretary of State should have also clarified how the government intends to exert its control on the superfast broadband market. In particular:
- What resources will be made available to compensate the loss of EU funding in support of digital inclusion?
- What rules will be applied to foster investment and safeguard competition in the broadband market?
- What regulation will be enforced to make public interventions more effective and efficient?
All these questions need a precise and clear answer, if we want to address the rural divide effectively. Don’t worry, Mr Gove… you have time until 29th March 2019!
Data about EU funding have been retrieved from:
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/erdf-programmes-progress-and-achievements#projects-funded-by-erdf, www.ispreview.co.uk, www.scottishcities.org.uk, http://www.superfastcornwall.org, www.digitalregion.co.uk/